Four out of five Republicans stayed home Tuesday, and Tom Foley captured fewer than half of the ballots that were cast – but it was enough.
The Greenwich businessman secured the Republican gubernatorial nomination with 42 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Michael C. Fedele of Stamford in a primary battle dominated by bitter attacks, particularly through television and radio ads.
But as Foley declared victory – almost simultaneously with Fedele’s concession -around 11 p.m., the party nominee tried almost immediately to mend fences.
“I’ll be reaching out to my opponents,” Foley said, getting a laugh from about 200 supporters who packed the conference room at the Marriott Rocky Hill as he jokingly referred to “the energetic campaign in the last few weeks.”
Fedele, who finished with about 39 percent of the vote, launched ads pressing Foley to disclose more information about past arrests and accusing him of making millions of dollars while a Georgia textile mill he owned slid toward bankruptcy.
The front-runner countered with ads saying Fedele, the lieutenant governor, shares the blame for the massive state budget deficit projected for the coming fiscal year.
The third GOP candidate, Oz Griebel of Simsbury, compared both of his rivals to children flinging mud in a sandbox. Griebel got about 19 percent of the vote.
Foley said he will turn to his former rivals “to get their advice and guidance during the campaign and after I’m elected governor.” He stood by his wife, Leslie, listening to chants of “Go, Tom, Go” from enthusiastic supporters.
Foley, who centered much of his campaign on the slogan that state government is “broke and broken,” warned Tuesday he would continue a message that only radical reform can eliminate a state budget deficit that approaches 20 percent of all current spending.
“I represent the change Connecticut’s citizens want and need,” he said. “The tax-and-spend policies of the past have not worked.” He said he would strive for consensus, if possible, but also would “hold the line against those who don’t want to make change.”
“We do not have a choice in this mission,” he said.
It is that willingness to challenge the political establishment that separate Foley from his rivals, state Rep. William Hamzy of Plymouth, a former GOP state chairman and early Foley backer, said Tuesday.
“Over the next four years, this state is going to require someone to make decisions that are very unpopular but very necessary. This state is in some very difficult straits,” Hamzy said, adding Fedele couldn’t convince enough Republicans who could draw a line in the sand.
The heated race between the GOP front runners had whittled the 35-point margin Foley enjoyed in an early Quinnipiac University poll down to 8 points.
Both campaigns conceded in the final days that the race would fall to whichever side had the most effective, grassroots, get-out-the-vote operation.
As Fedele stepped before the crowd at The Italian Center of Stamford at what was meant to be his victory celebration, the room suddenly fell silent.
“We fell short of our goal,” Fedele said, trying to keep a smile on his face. “Mike Fedele was not meant to move forward at this time… We came close, we came close.”
Fedele’s campaign had waited until after the Associated Press called the race, hopeful that their winning margins in Danbury, Stamford and Norwalk would push them to a victory.
“I did the best I could do,” he said earlier in the day Tuesday adding that it was hard to compete with the money Foley poured into his campaign early.
In the last financial disclosure report leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Foley had outspent Fedele and Boughton, by more than $1 million.
“If you think about the amount of money he has put in and for it to be this close is really amazing,” Fedele said.
Griebel, who took a leave from his post as president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance to run, conceded his bid for the party’s nomination about an hour earlier, thanking his staff and family and calling the campaign exhilarating.
“It’s been exhilarating in a lot of ways. We’ve all learned a lot,” he said.
Griebel arrived at the campaign reception at the Hartford Marriott about 8:45 p.m. to cheers of “Oz, Oz, Oz” from about 75 supporters. However, Griebel, who trailed Foley and Fedele in the polls throughout the race, was in the same position throughout the evening Tuesday as results came in.
In his concession, Griebel said his decision to run was one of “three quixotic things I’ve done in my life,” citing his attempt to pursue a career in professional baseball and his first date with his wife, Kirsten, 32 years ago. “On that night I was convinced I would get her to marry me, so, one for three,” he said.
State Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, the vice chairman of Griebel’s campaign, said that despite the result, Griebel had been a candidate who could bring people together and won admiration from some of Guglielmo’s Democratic colleagues.
“I can’t tell you the number of people on the other side of the aisle who said the only guy on your side who makes any sense is Oz,” Guglielmo said.
Griebel said he was disappointed by the low turnout at polling places he visited. “As a voter, as a citizen, you’re disappointed.” Voting “is not only a right, but an obligation,” he said.
He said August is one of the worst times to hold a primary, particularly during vacation season in New England.
Though final numbers weren’t available late Tuesday, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of the state’s 412,155 Republican voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary.
Fedele’s running mate, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, had more success Tuesday, defeating Simsbury businesswoman Lisa Wilson-Foley. Unofficial results late Tuesday also showed Avon lawyer Martha Dean handily defeated Ross Garber of Glastonbury to capture the GOP nomination for attorney general.
Boughton, like Fedele, relied on public funds to wage his campaign against an opponent who relied largely on self-funding. Wilson-Foley, a Simsbury businesswoman, raised more than $62,000 in private contributions through the last reporting period to complement the roughly $400,000 she provided to her own campaign.
“I would do nothing different,” said Boughton, who originally ran for governor, then decided to become Fedele’s running mate shortly before the Republican State Convention in May. He called his win, coupled with Fedele’s loss “bittersweet.”
Unofficial results late Tuesday showed Boughton winning with 52 percent of the vote.
Wilson-Foley took an unusual route in her bid for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, declaring her interest in the office without any gubernatorial running mate.
“I enjoyed the ride,” she said. “I learned a lot. I met a lot of good people.”
Wilson-Foley added that despite the challenge of vying for public attention amid two major party gubernatorial primaries and a Republican contest for the U.S. Senate nomination, she felt she had a strong message centered on helping businesses grow jobs. “It wasn’t like I was ignored,” she said.
Dean, an Avon lawyer who was steamrolled in the 2002 election for attorney general by Democratic incumbent Richard Blumenthal, captured roughly 60 percent of the vote Tuesday in her victory over Garber.
“I’ve never seen the polls so empty,” said Dean, who credited her grassroots campaign effort for allowing her to face Ridgefield attorney George C. Jepsen, a former state Senate majority leader, in the general election. “But we had great volunteers all around the state working very hard, going door to door over the last month.”
Dean, who centered her campaign on a message of economic liberty and restraint against unnecessary government interference, became embroiled in a heated race against Garber. She threatened to sue Garber over a flier she argued misrepresented her position on decriminalization of certain drug offenses. “I believe we had the right message,” Dean added. “We stayed positive and we stayed on message.”
Garber, a Glastonbury lawyer, was chief legal counsel to former Gov. John G. Rowland during the latter’s 2004 impeachment inquiry, got a late start, entering the race only one week before the state convention.
But Garber refused to blame his loss on the late start. “I’ll leave that to the pundits,” he said. “We worked hard. It was an important race to run. I’m happy I ran it.”