Against a vulnerable incumbent, Foley is a cautious challenger

Dannel P. Malloy and Tom Foley facing each other in 2010.

CT MIRROR

Dannel P. Malloy and Tom Foley facing each other in 2010.

Tom Foley says Connecticut suffers under onerous business regulations, but he won’t name one. He says elements of the post-Newtown gun controls inconvenience law-abiding gun owners, but he won’t identify one that should be repealed. He promises to control spending, without saying how.

In his second run for governor, the Republican nominee has tread so carefully that it appears at times that he was read the political equivalent of a Miranda warning: Anything he says can and will be used against him.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Democrat who narrowly won four years ago, is expected to use Foley’s reticence against him in their first debate tonight, but Foley is betting that voters want to hear his vision for the future, not read turn-by-turn directions on how he intends to get there.

It is a calculated risk.

To win, Foley needs to reach beyond Republican voters, who comprise just 21 percent of the Connecticut electorate. But he must attract a majority of the 42 percent of unaffiliated voters and a sliver of the 37 percent of Democrats without saying or doing anything to alienate his base.

“You have to be vague,” said one national GOP strategist who has studied Connecticut. “Otherwise, it’s over before it starts.”

But how vague?

There is no precise formula. Strategists and analysts interviewed by The Mirror say Foley’s strategy of emphasizing the broad over the narrow, the destination over the steps to get there, is sound — especially when only 44 percent of voters say the incumbent deserves re-election.

Winning the voters’ confidence

The trick, they say, is to give voters enough detail to instill confidence. And there is no book on where lies that line.

“It’s all in the execution,” said Rich Hanley, a Quinnipiac University professor who’s studied communication and campaigns. “He has to be consistent in his execution, or he risks opening up a whole line of attack, allowing Democrats to say, ‘You are inconsistent.’ Or, ‘Oh, he’s tap dancing.’ ”

In 1980, Ronald Reagan synthesized his campaign against Jimmy Carter, a president beset by rising inflation and a struggling economy, to one question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

But Reagan also promised to balance the budget in three years, reduce taxes by 30 percent and repeal the “windfall profits tax” on petroleum. He challenged Carter’s ability to manage the economy with a gibe that crackled: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

No one is confusing Foley with Reagan.

“Hey, he had his four years,” Foley said recently of Malloy. “I guess he gave it his best shot, but it hasn’t worked. Let’s get a new team in there.”

A national GOP strategist, who asked not to be identified by name on the theory that critiquing Republican candidates is bad for business, said Foley needs to give voters more, or he runs the risk of allowing Malloy to focus voters on the shortcomings of the challenger.

“You can’t make it through an entire campaign for governor without divulging some specifics,” he said. “You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of it all. But the only way Malloy wins re-election in my view is if he makes the race about something other than himself.”

Malloy is working assiduously to do just that, mocking Foley for repeatedly refusing to answer a simple question about the gun law: Does he think limiting the size of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds is good public policy or bad?

Tom Foley and Dannel P. Malloy at a forum in 2010.

CT MIRROR

Tom Foley and Dannel P. Malloy at a forum in 2010.

The governor said his position is clear on the gun law – he signed it, with great fanfare – as is his position on the $10.10 minimum wage passed by the General Assembly at his insistence. Foley says he supports a $10.10 federal minimum, but he has variously questioned the wisdom of the state minimum being that high or suggested that the state adopt a multi-tiered rate.

“Boy, he’s been on every side of this issue in a relatively short of time,” Malloy said. “He was against it, then he was for it if it was done on a federal basis, but not a state basis. He’s attacked me for being anti-business. It’s tough to have it all the ways, but I guess that’s the way he wants it: have it all sides, all ways, all views, all the time. I guess that’s how he’s getting specific.”

Malloy also makes the case that Foley has criticized the education reform law passed in 2011 as both insufficient and overreaching.

“In fairness when he says that education reform hasn’t gone far enough, maybe people should ask him specifically what he means by that,” Malloy said. “And then when he says but it’s gone too far in other ways, maybe people should ask him specifics about that. And anybody who is running for public office should be willing to answer those questions.”

Testing the limits of being vague

Jonathan Pelto, the former political director for the state Democratic Party who tried to get on the ballot as a petitioning candidate, is no fan of Malloy. But he said Foley is testing the limits of being vague.

To assemble constituent groups who may be disaffected with the governor, Foley needs to draw them in with more than the fact he is not a governor whose job approval rating never has hit 50 percent in four years, Pelto said.

“If you are hoping to capitalize on the anger and frustration against Malloy, then the conventional wisdom is to be as general as you possibly can,” said Pelto, who has helped run successful campaigns. “Maybe we’ll look back and say Foley’s strategy was brilliant, but it certainly is very odd when it comes to Connecticut politics.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who considered his own run for governor, said credibility comes with a degree of specificity.

“I just don’t feel the large themes are sufficient: ‘We need lower taxes and less government.’ And then walk away. That may have worked at a country fair in 1938,” Cafero said.

Ed Patru, the former political consultant who was the strategist for Linda McMahon’s U.S. Senate race in 2010, said a candidate can get by with fewer specifics if he or she has won the voter’s trust.

“I think that increasingly voters go to the polls with a certain amount of cynicism,” Patru said. “They don’t believe every politician’s promise, but they want to feel they can trust a public official and believe the person they are voting for has the capacity to manage government in a competent way.”

Foley is unwavering as to his strategy and message.

“I’ve been very specific about the policies that I would pursue,” he said. “I’ve talked about making the state more business friendly to help restore the economy and jobs. I’ve talked about getting control over spending, and I’ve talked about reducing taxes.”

He was unapologetic for saying he would reduce the regulatory burden on businesses without offering a single specific.

“I just don’t think it’s productive to be digging down into that level,” Foley said. “If something’s obvious, why are you being asked to provide details to prove it? It’s obvious to the people in Connecticut, certainly employers, that there’s overzealous regulation, in the permitting process, in the Department of Labor, and so on and so forth. So why just throw detailed questions on somebody when an issue is obvious? It doesn’t need to be supported with further detail or persuasive argument.”

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