Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, announced his candidacy for governor by email Tuesday, a low-key beginning to a long-planned campaign to win the GOP nomination and unseat the first-term Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy.

“I love my state and I’ve always been proud to call Connecticut my home,” McKinney said in his email. “I’m running for governor because I care about Connecticut’s history and its future. I want my children and the next generation to be just as proud to call Connecticut their home.”

McKinney, 49, the youngest son of the late congressman, Stewart B. McKinney, a moderate Republican who represented the 4th Congressional District of lower Fairfield County, has been a state senator for 16 years and the state Senate’s GOP leader since 2007. He is a fiscal conservative who is progressive on social issues, supporting gay rights and abortion rights.

This year, McKinney was one of six Republicans in his 14-member caucus who supported a bipartisan package of gun control measures crafted in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, one of the communities in McKinney’s state Senate district. 

With no Republican holding statewide office or a congressional seat, McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who recently decided against a run for governor, have been the two highest-ranking elected Republicans in Connecticut. 

But McKinney faces a contest with Tom Foley, the GOP nominee who lost a close race to Malloy in 2010 and has all-but-declared his candidacy. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who ran in 2010 before withdrawing to seek and win the nomination for lieutenant governor, also is considering another shot at governor.

In a telephone interview Monday morning, McKInney said his focus would be on the record of Malloy, not Foley or any other rival for the GOP nomination. He noted that Republicans weakened their nominee in 2010 by a sharply negative primary campaign.

“I’m not going to participate in that,” McKinney said.

McKinney will be at a financial disadvantage in a primary, as he pledged to participate in the state’s public financinging program, which imposes strict spending limits. Foley self-funded his 2010 race and is expected to do so again in 2014.

“Gov. Malloy demonstrated that the Citizens Elections Fund was enough to overcome a self-funded Democratic candidate in a primary,” McKinney said.

A court decision has since invalidated supplemental grants triggered by an opponent’s spending, leaving McKinney with less money in 2014 than Malloy had in 2010. 

McKinney’s budget for a primary would be little more than $1.5 million: $250,000 in qualifying donations he would have to raise, and a grant of slightly more than $1.25 million. In 2010, Malloy was awarded double that amount, triggered by the spending of Malloy’s self-funded opponent, Ned Lamont. 

By creating a candidate committee, McKinney is foregoing the significant resources he could have raised by first forming an exploratory committee, which allows candidates to raise and spend money before qualifying for a public grant.

I weighed all of those issues and to me the overriding factor is I want people to know, starting today, I am a candidate for governor, not exploring” a run for governor, McKinney said.

McKinney’s announcement strategy focused on Fairfield County, the political base of the Republican Party. He granted an interview Monday with the Hearst Newspapers, a group that dominates the county with the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport, the Advocate of Stamford, the Greenwich Time and the News-Times of Danbury.

His email sent at 7:35 a.m. Tuesday ignored Foley and focused on Malloy and Connecticut’s economy.

“By almost every measure, Gov. Malloy has taken Connecticut’s economy in the wrong direction,” he said. “After three years of picking winners and losers and giving away hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars to big corporations already based in Connecticut, the results of Gov. Malloy’s economic policies speak for themselves: Connecticut is losing. We are the only state in the nation with a shrinking economy, and our unemployment rate, at 8.1%, remains above the national average.”

Democrats were ready with a reply from Jonathan Harris, the executive director of the Connecticut Democrats and a former Senate colleague.

“John McKinney is a nice guy,” Harris said. “And over the years he’s dedicated a lot of time to public service.  But more often than not, as demonstrated by his legislative record, he has voted against the interests of Connecticut’s middle class.  And for the most part he cheered on the two Republican governors who drove Connecticut into the ditch Gov. Malloy has been working so hard to pull us out of.”

Harris highlighted McKinney’s votes against a minimum wage increase, his opposition to Malloy’s huge investment in bioscience and his support of GOP budget alternatives that would have cut spending on education and the HUSKY health insurance program for low-income children in 2011.

McKinney said he expects a full debate over the next 16 months about his voting record over eight terms as a state senator.

“I’m excited about this campaign and grateful for all the friends, family and supporters who have encouraged me to take this step,” McKinney said in his email. “Over the coming weeks, we’ll work to build support and a statewide organization to help put Connecticut back on the right track.”

McKinney had been expected by some in the party to eventually seek his father’s old seat, especially after Republican Christopher Shays, who succeeded Stewart McKinney, lost the seat in 2008 to Democrat Jim Himes.

But McKinney divorced in 2009, leaving him with joint custody of his three children, who are now 13, 14 and 17. He told friends that splitting time between Washington and Connecticut was unthinkable.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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