Malloy, 55, the former mayor of Stamford and the first statewide candidate to qualify for public financing, trailed in every poll to Lamont, who outspent Malloy by a 4-1 margin.
“The real work begins tomorrow, the new Connecticut begins in November,” an exultant Malloy told supporters in Hartford. Unofficial results showed him winning with 58 percent of the vote.
As a candidate for governor promising to bring a businessman’s sense to Hartford, Lamont, 56, of Greenwich never recaptured the energy and excitement that fueled his challenge of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
Tuesday, Lamont set aside the hard feelings and negative ads of the past weeks and forcefully urged his supporters to back Malloy and his running mate, Nancy Wyman.
“We’re going to do everything we can to unite behind the Democratic ticket going forward to win in November,” Lamont said from the stage of a Bridgeport catering hall.
Lamont and his running mate, Mary Glassman, mingled with supporters long after delivering their concessions.
Malloy ignored polling that branded 2010 as the year of the outsider and campaigned on his 14-year record as the successful mayor of a city, promising he was ready to govern Connecticut.
“There’s a takeaway lesson in this that the people of Connecticut decided to hire somebody with experience at running government,” Malloy told reporters shortly after delivering his victory speech to a packed crowd at City Steam Brewery Café in downtown Hartford.
The campaign for governor was Malloy’s second in four years. He narrowly lost a Democratic primary in 2006, a defeat that saved him from facing an unbeatable Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Led by Malloy and Wyman, the other two convention-endorsed Democrats facing primaries also won: Kevin Lembo defeated Michael Jarjura for comptroller, and Denise Merrill beat Gerry Garcia for secretary of the state.
The state House of Representatives now faces a decision over whether to join the Senate in overriding the veto of legislation that would double the public-financing grant in the general election from $3 million to $6 million.
Proponents urged passage before the primary, when both parties had candidates who qualified for public financing, Malloy and his high school classmate, Republican Michael Fedele. Now the issue will be cast as a vote for or against giving the Democratic nominee $3 million.
Fedele lost to Tom Foley, a Greenwich businessman who loaned his campaign $3 million.
Malloy’s win was an upset on two levels.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, Malloy still trailed by three percentage points after closing the gap over the previous weeks from nine points to five.
He also was outspent. Lamont contributed $8.6 million to his $9.1 million campaign account as of Aug. 4, including a late contribution of $1.75 million for television advertising, direct mail and an intense get-out-the-vote effort that may have turned off some voters. Malloy had $2.5 million in public financing and $250,000 in qualifying contributions.
Malloy aired the first negative ad, a spot that tried to undermine Lamont’s record as a successful businessman. But Lamont hit back harder, eventually airing a piece that questioned Malloy’s ethics, asking how he could afford a $2 million home on a mayor’s salary. Malloy said he thought Lamont regretted the ad.
“Going negative was not my nature,” Lamont told reporters Tuesday night. “Everybody knows it’s not my nature. What do you want me to say? There are a lot of things you look back on. I didn’t want anybody to vote against somebody. I wanted to give people somebody to vote for.”
Earlier in the day, the two Democrats scavenged for votes amidst a sparse turnout.
They ventured far from polling places in search of support. Malloy marched with picketers outside a Hartford nursing home. Lamont found more potential votes at Stew Leonard’s.
“Where are the voters, Gary?” Lamont asked a supporter, Gary Collins, outside the polling place at St. John’s Church in West Hartford, a suburb that produced more Democratic votes in 2006 than anyplace but New Haven and Stamford.
At 4 p.m., the secretary of the state’s office estimated the turnout so far was 15 percent, a number that bode poorly for Lamont and well for Malloy.
With 96 percent of the precincts reporting, it appeared the turnout would be no more than 25 percent, compared to 43 percent in 2006.
Lamont polled best with the broad pool of registered Democrats, but Malloy showed strength among likely primary voters in recent polls by Quinnipiac University.
About an hour after the polls closed, Lamont was watching a baseball game when his campaign manager called Lamont at the hotel in Trumbull where he was staying with his family.
“I got a phone call from Joe Abbey saying it doesn’t look so good,” Lamont said.
Lamont called Malloy, who was monitoring results at a downtown Residence Inn in Hartford, and asked if his numbers were the same.
Lamont said he then congratulated him, offering an early concession.
A surprised Malloy telephoned his media adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, who had left the hotel to talk to reporters, and told him Lamont had conceded. Occhiogrosso and Dan Kelly, the campaign’s manager, immediately met in Malloy’s room.
Malloy, who was described by one aide as briefly overcome with emotion, later told reporters that Lamont was generous during his phone call.
“He was quite certain that I would be the nominee and that I would be the next governor of the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said.
Lamont offered his help, Malloy said, adding that he had been prepared to do the same if Lamont won. He said he was confident that his campaign could win over Lamont supporters.
“We’re Democrats,” Malloy said. “I’m confident that they want to see a Democratic governor.”
Malloy said during the day he felt good about his chances. He said his election-day strategy – voting at 6:15 a.m., then spending the day meeting voters, trying to get people out to vote, and taking advantage of free media coverage of his last-minute campaigning – could make a difference.
“On a really slow, hot day in August, maybe it makes all the difference in the world,” he said, greeting voters in Rocky Hill.
Several voters leaving the Rocky Hill polling place offered assurances that he was their pick, including one voter who belonged to a union that endorsed him.
Malloy’s union support was one reason his schedule included 20 minutes on the picket line with SEIU members outside Park Place Health Center.
“My mother organized a nursing home,” Malloy said. His mother was a public health nurse.
Shortly after 2 p.m., Malloy stood on the corner of a busy intersection on Main Street in East Hartford, waving to motorists as they drove by.
Berent LaBrecque, 17, of Cheshire, stood next to the candidate, pointing his way as drivers passed. LaBrecque and several other members of the Young Democrats club at Cheshire High School had made the trip to hold signs on street corners for their candidate, hoping to sway their elders’ votes.
LaBrecque said he liked Malloy’s experience as mayor of Stamford, which he said was more relevant than Lamont’s experience in business.
“The governor of the state of Connecticut should have some experience governing,” LaBrecque said.
“I would’ve voted for you, except I heard your negative ads,” Elliott Tertes told him.
“What about the other guy?” Lamont asked.
Lamont told Tertes he pulled down the negative pieces.
“We’re ending on a postive note,” Lamont said.
Tertes just shook his head.
Despite the negative ads, Lamont predicted that the Democratic Party quickly will unite behind the winner of today’s primary, an assertion backed by polling.
One politician whose relationship with the party has been rocky cared enough to vote in the primary: Lieberman, who won as an independent in 2006 after Lamont beat him in a Democratic primary.
Lieberman is a self-described “independent Democrat,” but he remains a registered Democratic voter in Stamford.
Lamont spotted him leaving his polling place. He yelled from his car.
“I said, ‘It’s your old friend, Ned,’ ” Lamont said.
He was unsure if Lieberman heard him.
Lamont skipped a late-afternoon campaign stop in New Haven to detour to Norwalk for the wake of a union leader and supporter, Brian Petronella, who died of a heart attack Friday.
Petronella, 54, was president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has 10,000 members.
By 6 p.m., Lamont was in Bridgeport, stopping at two two polling places.
His last stop was Central High School, where he once taught classes as a volunteer. The school’s cavernous gym was empty, save for poll workers who sat fanning themselves in the muggy air.
Lamont greeted the trickle of voters who arrived after work. With no other voters in sight, he told his oldest daughter, Emily, he was going to go for a walk.
“I’m going to think about my speech for a while,” Lamont said.
As he headed away from the school, he stopped and smiled at two young women volunteering for Malloy.
“Don’t worry,” he told them. “We’ll all be together in 24 hours.”