What a difference a few months make. In February Dannel Malloy, the notably self-satisfied governor of Connecticut, was being buzzed about as a Democratic heavy-hitter. Candy Crowley even popped Malloy the presidential question on CNN. (He said no.)
Now it looks like, in addition to not being president in 2016, Malloy might not even be governor of Connecticut. A Wednesday Quinnipiac poll has Malloy tied with the same challenger he defeated in 2010. Quinnipiac last month actually had Republican challenger Tom Foley ahead by six points, and a poll from Rasmussen had Foley leading by seven.
So why have his reelection hopes been sinking into Long Island Sound? Why is the Land of Steady Habits considering a break with its liberal tradition?
The biggest culprit is the tax increase, or rather the whole suite of tax increases, that Malloy signed into law in 2011. These included a hike in the state sales tax from 6 percent to 6.35 percent, an increase on income taxes for those making more than $100,000 a year, higher cigarette and alcohol taxes, a new luxury tax on expensive items, a cabaret tax on bars that play music, and the removal of tax exemptions on cheap footwear, nonprescription drugs, and yarn. (Woe to the politician who fiddles with the yarn tax.)
Meanwhile the sledgehammer of tax increases bludgeoned Connecticut’s already-fragile economy. In 2011, the year the new taxes were implemented, Connecticut’s GDP shrank by 0.9 percent, and it’s remained anemic ever since. According to a University of Connecticut economic analysis in 2013, “Connecticut is one of the few states whose economy, whether measured in output or household income, is not close to its 2007 peak.” Couple that with the nation’s third highest tax burden, third highest energy costs, and fifth worst business environment, and you have a state charging its citizens a fortune in exchange for minimal economic expansion.
Connecticut’s chief executive, imitating America’s chief executive, keeps blaming his predecessor, the moderate Republican Jodi Rell. But as the Hartford Courant’s Kevin Rennie points out, at the end of Rell’s term in 2010 the economy was slowly regaining its luster. “In those 11 months under Rell, Connecticut saw 23,000 jobs created. In no year of Malloy’s term has Connecticut seen that level of job growth,” Rennie writes.
Connecticut’s economy isn’t the nation’s most shambolic – maybe No. 4 or 5. But unlike petro-state Alaska or coal-dependent West Virginia, Connecticut can’t blame circumstances beyond its control. It was a manufacturing powerhouse during the first half of the twnetieth century that transitioned to a service economy, within spitting distance of two major urban centers and boasting the sort of steepled autumn landscapes that Gilmore Girls fans crave and those of us who grew up in the Nutmeg State remember so fondly.
There’s only one culprit you can finger in Connecticut: decades of unrelenting progressive governance.
Those problems didn’t begin with Malloy, but he exacerbated them, and he did it with as tin an ear as you’ll find in politics. A former prosecutor and mayor of Stamford, he looks like a Tex Avery caricature of a supercilious liberal blogger. He has a habit of speaking to constituents like he’s substitute teaching a civics class of young students (at a recent town hall: “We have courts in this country. We have a legislative branch, an executive branch, and we have courts”). This has aroused public rage in many of Connecticut’s usually temperate residents, who have retaliated by publicly booing him at events ranging from a baseball game to an Obama rally.
One of the few times they haven’t been jeering was in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Malloy received high marks for appearing strong in the face of tragedy. But then he quickly squandered the goodwill by browbeating the Connecticut legislature into passing the toughest anti-gun bill ever devised. It instituted mandatory background checks and outlawed a host of new magazines and “assault weapons.” Those who already owned an assault weapon were required to register it with the state.
And then something remarkable happened: Connecticut gun owners watched the news, shrugged, and went about their business. Existing assault weapons banned by the legislation were supposed to be registered by January 1, 2014. Instead only an estimated 15 percent of the outstanding rifles were signed up. Malloy had just unwittingly created between 20,000 to 100,000 new felons. One lawmaker said several of his gun-owning constituents had told him they wouldn’t come forward.
How to deal with such astonishing civil disobedience? Mike Lawlor, a top criminal justice official, ruled out a statewide crackdown, but did say that other actions could be taken. “They could send them a letter,” he warned. Head for the hills!
The gun regulations won’t necessarily cut into Malloy’s popularity. Connecticuters actually approve of the gun control law by a margin of 56 to 38 percent, according to Quinnipiac. But guns could still prove a potent political issue, especially in the heavily rural eastern part of the state. Malloy has been repeatedly confronted by angry gun owners at town halls, to whom he responds with a litany of insufferable “in point of facts” and cherry-picked statistics. The local gun group, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, quadrupled its membership in the year after the Newtown shooting.
Malloy’s Republican opponent, Tom Foley, has been somewhat tight-lipped about guns, focusing instead on Malloy’s economic record and accusing him of using “Malloy Math” to mask his budgetary failures. Foley is a businessman and former ambassador to Ireland who ran against Malloy in 2010 and lost by only 6,000 votes. In debates with his long-time rival, he can seem vacuous, stumbling through talking points while the governor hammers away. Some Connecticut conservatives have accused him of squishiness.
But maybe Foley is exactly what the state GOP needs. Call it the Jurassic Park Theory of Connecticut Republicans: If the candidate doesn’t move, the voters won’t see him and bite his head off. For Foley to avoid making waves is easy: He isn’t a vocal populist, as a Tea Partier would be, and he’s never had his head smashed against the ground by a wrestler on national television, as did frequent Connecticut candidate Linda McMahon. By staying quiet, Foley’s succeeded at making the election what it should be: a referendum on Malloy’s disastrous governance.
Who knows? Connecticut has a history of electing moderate, inoffensive Republicans to be battered around by its overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Maybe a novel coalition of economically affected middle classers and annoyed gun owners can rise up to throw Malloy out. If they do, sullen Democrats will be forced to ask themselves this question: If progressivism can’t win in Connecticut, then where can it win?
— Matt Purple is an editor at Rare.us.