Fairfield – John P. McKinney entered the 2014 race for governor Tuesday as a moderate Republican who hopes to reach beyond Connecticut’s limited GOP base and as a convert to the public financing of campaigns.

“I am doing the public financing, because it is the right direction for the campaign,” said McKinney, who voted against the law creating public financing in 2005. “I don’t have to sit in a room and make phone calls to donors.”

McKinney opened his campaign by sharply critiquing the economic policies of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first-term Democratic governor, and by studiously ignoring Tom Foley, the Republican nominee in 2010 who intends to run again.

McKinney, 49, the state Senate Republican leader, is the first to formally declare his candidacy for 2014, when the GOP hopes the election will turn on Malloy’s tepid standing with voters and the state’s slow economic recovery.

Compared to the timetable set four years ago by Malloy, who was elected as the state’s first publicly funded governor, McKinney is late in filing the candidate committee papers that allow him to begin raising money.

At this point in the 2010 election cycle, Malloy already had raised $276,000 through an exploratory committee that eventually would bring in more than $500,000 before he qualified for public financing.

McKinney’s decision to forgo an exploratory committee means he is limiting himself to $250,000 in qualifying funds he needs to raise for public financing, plus public grants of $1.25 million for a primary and -– if he wins the nomination -– another $6 million for the general election.

“Dan Malloy did it his way,” McKinney said. “He also ran for governor for about six years.”

McKinney said his decision to immediately create a candidate committee was strategic: By skipping the interim step of an exploratory committee, he is making a statement of intent to GOP voters and delegates.

“I’m not going to play games that others might do: ‘Well, I’m exploring it, but wink, I really am running,’ ” McKinney said. “I’m running. I’m a hundred percent committed. There is no turning back. That’s the message with a candidate committee.”

McKinney said money is important, but the richest candidates haven’t done well in Connecticut.

Despite spending a record $50 million in each race, Linda McMahon lost U.S. Senate elections in 2010 and 2012.

Malloy beat two wealthy, self-funding candidates in 2010: Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary, and Foley in the general election. Foley spent $12.8 million on his race, including about $11 million of his own money.

McKinney, a graduate of Yale and the University of Connecticut law school, is the beneficiary of a family trust that has allowed him to work full-time as a state legislator in recent years.

“My mother came from a family that did very well,” McKinney said.

Her grandfather, Briggs Cunningham, was an investor whose finances helped launch Proctor & Gamble. Her father, Briggs S. Cunningham II, was a famous yachtsman and race-car driver and designer.

McKinney, the youngest of five children, said the trust has given him the freedom to work for low pay in politics, but not the wealth to underwrite a statewide campaign.

“I am not in any way, shape or form capable of self-funding a campaign for governor,” McKinney said.

No balloons, just email

There used to be balloons, maybe a band to kick off statewide campaigns. McKinney’s began with an early morning email blast and a series of television interviews on a green across from the Firehouse Deli here in his hometown.

McKinney accommodated television reporters who preferred video of him walking and talking or shaking hands with voters. He met reporters without a handler, keeping track of appointments on a smart phone.

He announced no campaign staff.

McKinney appeared on camera without his suit coat, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up. On one wrist, he wore two green wristbands in memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, part of his district. 

One of the wristbands was a gift from a Democratic colleague in the Senate, Joseph Crisco of Woodbridge. The other is from the parents of Daniel Barden, one of the 20 children and six educators killed at Sandy Hook.

McKinney’s candidacy comes after an eventful four years in his personal and political life.

Republicans looked to him to run for Congress in 2010 after Democrat Jim Himes unseated U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, in 2008, costing the GOP its last House seat in Connecticut and, at the time, its only one in New England.

Shays had succeeded McKinney’s father, Stewart B. McKinney, who died in 1987 after 16 years in Congress. Trying to recapture his father’s seat seemed an obvious step for the son, who was elected to the General Assembly in 1998.

But in 2009, McKinney filed for a divorce that became final in 2010. With shared custody of his three children, he was unwilling to take on a difficult campaign and the prospect of splitting time between Connecticut and Washington.

“It was not a difficult decision at all,” McKinney said.

Now, after nearly 16 years in the General Assembly, the last six as the Senate GOP leader, McKinney said he is ready for a statewide campaign.

“I’m at an incredible point in my life. I’m 49 years old, happy,” he said.

His children are 13, 14 and 17, and he has a new relationship with Kristin Fox, an executive of a non-profit organization, that he acknowledged during his brief remarks at the GOP’s annual Prescott Bush Dinner.

On Dec. 14, McKinney reached Newtown an hour after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a friend teaches fourth grade. He was in the firehouse down the hill from the school when Malloy informed waiting parents that their children were dead.

He has complimented Malloy for his response to the tragedy.

“I respect the office. I respect the man,” he said.

He was on the same side as the governor in crafting a legislative response to the deaths, including a ban on the retail sale of certain semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. It is work that could cost him votes in a Republican primary.

McKinney said his campaign looks to the general election and will rest on his disagreements with how the governor and Democratic majority in the General Assembly have responded to the state’s struggling finances and its slow recovery from the recession.

Democrats are ready to brand him as a Republican too distant from the needs of middle class families, even as they concede a certain likability.

“John McKinney is a nice guy,” said Jonathan Harris, the executive director of the Conneticut Democrats.  “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.”

McKinney said his voting record is fair game.

To take on Malloy, McKinney first must get past Foley, but he declined to make a case against party’s 2010 nominee.

What will be his response when Republicans inevitably ask why they should support McKinney over Foley, who lost by just 6,404 votes of more than 1.1 million cast in 2010?

“Let me tell you who I am,” he said. “Let me tell you what I believe in. Let me tell you the direction I believe we should go in and why Dan Malloy and the Democrats are taking us down the wrong road.”

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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