Windsor Locks — Tom Foley’s face stared unblinking from the row upon row of high-definition televisions that cover the walls at Bobby V’s, the sports bar and OTB parlor across from Bradley International Airport. It was a convenient spot for Chris Christie to stop on his helter-skelter, election-eve travels.
Christie, the New Jersey governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, wore a glazed if-this-is-Monday-evening-I-must-be-in-Connecticut look. But he shook it off as he stepped to a small bouquet of microphones to do what President Obama did the previous day for Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy:
Assure the activists that victory is at hand, but defeat is lurking. Scare them, but not too much. Give them hope, but not too much. Democrat or Republican, the goal is the same. At the close of a $30 million campaign for governor, the pols want the troops to think the race is won or lost on the efforts of volunteers.
“Now, I wish I could make this invitation with, like dinner out, candy and flowers. But there’s 24 hours left,” Christie said, standing by a betting machine. “There’s no time for romancing you people. I can’t do it. I’m not going to romance you. I’m going to treat you like you want to be treated, straightforward and direct. We need you now.”
Connecticut goes to the polls Tuesday to choose once again between Malloy and Foley, his GOP challenger. The same two candidates nearly fought to a draw four years ago. Malloy won by 6,404 votes of 1.1 million cast. Foley did not concede until six days after the last vote was cast.
This year, every poll says voters view the candidates warily. They are angry at Malloy over the tax increase he imposed to cope with an inherited $3.6 billion deficit, but unsure how Foley would govern. Foley proposed a $2 billion spending cut in 2010, never quite addressing the rest of the gap.
Neither man is beloved. In a new Quinnipiac University poll, 43 percent of likely voters had a favorable opinion of Malloy, 42 percent for Foley. And the whispers in both parties, even among the partisan’s at Bobby V’s, is that each man is a flawed candidate leading a flawed campaign, appealing to voters in an angry year.
But somebody has to win Tuesday night.
“I will say that we’ve done a lot of hard work to be in this position where we can win it, when a lot of people didn’t think we could win it.,” Malloy told Democrats at a local headquarters in West Hartford. “We can win it if we execute tomorrow and tonight and we don’t let up until 8 p.m. tomorrow night And if there is a line at 8 p.m., we don’t let up until everyone has voted in line.”
His audience cheered. It included the local mayor, Scott Slifka, and one of his predecessors, Kevin Sullivan, a former state Senate leader who now serves in the Malloy administration, and state Sen. Beth Bye.
On the counter at the local HQ, slips of paper showed the routes assigned to door-knockers, volunteers making a last canvass identifying supporters and making plans to deliver them to the polls. The top slip bore the name of Attorney General George Jepsen’s son.
Malloy thanked them all once more, then left to hop-scotch across the state on his way to a rally in Stamford, the city where he served as mayor for 14 years. His plan is to vote in Hartford at a little after 7 a.m.
At Bobby V’s, the Republicans talked about their own ground game, plus plans to watch for irregularities at the polls.
Jason McCoy, a lawyer and former Vernon mayor, was one of Foley’s observers in 2010, spending a long night in Bridgeport watching the last bag of ballots counted, a job finished at dawn on a Friday. He said he is ready to go to New Haven this year, the biggest single source of Democratic votes.
Herb Shepardson, a lawyer and former GOP state chairman, wrote a warning letter earlier Monday to the secretary of the state, asking her to give further instructions to elections officials in Bridgeport and New Haven about how to administer election-day registrations.
Both sides are gearing up for another close race, where small advantages and disadvantages can loom large.
The Democrats say they are ready to surprise with a ground game, the likes of which has never been seen in Connecticut. They claim 10,000 volunteers. They say they phoned at least 600,000 voters over the weekend. They say they have identified and mobilized young voters who typically turn out only in presidential years.
“No, I’m not confident at all,” Malloy said, ignoring positive polls. We have a job to do. We’ve done a great job to be in this situation that we’re in, where we can win this election if we get our voters to the polls. That’s the situation we’re in. I don’t know if we get them all to the polls, but if we do, we win.”
None of it is verifiable, other than the ever-growing payroll of the Connecticut Democratic Party over the past year, as it hired activists who worked on President Obama’s last campaign, an effort praised even by Republicans as state-of-the-art. Jon Blair, the campaign manager, has been the wizard behind the curtain, declining to talk to reporters – or some longtime activists.
There is gamesmanship on both sides.
Over the weekend, as public polls showed him trailing, albeit within the margins of error, Foley said his last internal poll on Thursday showed him with a 3½ point lead and a trend line that pointed to a four- or five-point win and an early night Tuesday. His campaign scheduled a press availability for Wednesday. Only the victor needs to address the press the morning after an election.
“We’ve had a very energetic get-out-the-vote effort going for three months. We’ve been ID’ing soft Democrats and unaffiliated voters. We’ve made 60,000 get-out-the-vote phone calls each day, for the last three or four days,” Foley said. “We have a huge volunteer organization. We’ve had to get more phones, more signs, everything.”
The Republicans claim their own effort to capture what Foley calls the “pop-up voters,” the ones who shun the mid-term elections and pop up only when the presidency is on the line. Ground game never has been a Republican strong suit in Connecticut, where they comprise only 21 percent of the electorate.
“We have 20,000 volunteers,” said Jerry Labriola Jr., the state GOP chairman. Then he laughed. “That’s preposterous. So is their 10,000.”
Labriola said the GOP’s voter ID program was “cutting edge,” he declined to provide details, no more than Democrats were willing to provide access to the governor’s campaign manager or talk about The Plan.”
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” Labriola said. “It’s classified.”
Christie arrived with his wife, Mary Pat, who knows her husband’s recent travels will become the norm if he runs for president in 2016. The governor, who immediately left for Maine after leaving Bobby V’s, wore a fleece pullover with a logo that said, “Jersey Fresh.”
On his fifth trip to Connecticut in two months, Christie took his well-practiced shots at Malloy, saying the governor misled voters when he said in 2010 that raising taxes would be the last thing he’d do.
“Well, the last thing happened pretty quick, didn’t it?” Christie asked. “This is an awful, awful thing he’s done.”
But Christie quickly dropped into a conversational tone as he advised the audience how to most effectively reach out to their neighbors.
“I want you to tell them that for the next 24 hours, you’re working for Tom Foley. You see, that makes a big difference to people. When they know that you are going to put aside the other things in your life for the next 24 hours,” Christie said.
He warned against the hard sell.
“I know this is strange coming from a guy from New Jersey,” Christie said, “but just a little gentle nudge, just a little gentle nudge in the small of the back in the next 24 hours, just to say to them, ‘Listen, I’m working for Tom Foley. And by the way, I’ve met him and looked him in the eye. And I’ve taken the measure of his character. And I know he’s a good, decent honest man who will do a good, honest job for us. That’s why I’m working for him. And that’s why I’m asking you to vote for him tomorrow.’ ”
The bar fell silent as he spoke.
“This isn’t like hanging from your thumbs or something. This isn’t hard. This is just doing that bit that you can do. Remember something, you remember how close this was four years ago? Heartbreakingly close. And you’ve got to expect the same thing can happen this time. It’ll be really close,” he said. “I hope it isn’t. I hope it’s a four or five point win. We call this baby early. We start drinking early.”
The crowd cheered, many raising a glass, but Christie wasn’t done.
“But don’t count on it,” he said. “Don’t count on it.”