The Republican primary for governor is heating up!

Yes, believe it or not, there’s a Republican gubernatorial primary happening. It’s the first one since 1994, when John G. Rowland crushed then-Secretary of the State Pauline Kezer. The major difference between that primary and this one, between former Ambassador Tom Foley and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, is that the 1994 race was interesting.

Fedele, a genial but still largely unknown Stamford Republican, has finally made a few headlines by attacking Foley’s major strength — his business experience. Foley had previously launched a pious attack on Fedele’s pursuit of public campaign funds, claiming that “We have a perfectly good and clean system for fundraising in this state without relying on tax dollars.” Indeed. It’s called being filthy rich. Foley has already spent millions in his own money on the race.

Apart from that, there has been the predictable quibbling over who is the real “outsider” candidate, a theme that seems to test well with focus groups this cycle. It’s sort of an odd claim for them to chase, considering that Foley had been an ambassador and had worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and Fedele is the sitting Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. A third candidate, Oz Griebel, is the president of the MetroHartford Alliance —which certainly is a real outsider group if ever there was one.

Hanging over all of their heads is the dubious legacy of outgoing Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Fedele has done the most to try and capitalize on Rell’s popularity — his campaign logos echo Rell’s 2006 re-election bid ­— but any Republican will have to deal with the obvious questions at some point: If having a Republican governor hasn’t helped get our fiscal house in order over the last six years, why would having another one make a difference? And doesn’t the very fact that the state is in crisis, as everyone keeps saying, imply that Rell has failed in some important ways?

Fedele’s embrace of the Citizens’ Election Program does mark him as the least traditional Republican candidate, and the one most likely to follow in Rell’s footsteps when it comes to annoying the party’s right wing. Unfortunately, unlike Rell, he has to face Republican primary voters, who will almost certainly hold this act of fiscal heresy against him. Foley is the party choice, says all the right things and has the money. Inertia will almost certainly carry him to a win in August barring a catastrophe of some sort.

But then what? 

It’s an uphill battle for Republicans no matter who wins in August. Open seat races for governor often herald paradigm shifts, and the dominant paradigm of the last 15 years has been a moderate Republican governor facing off against a large Democratic majority. The last open seat race in 1994 brought Republicans back to the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades. It’s a rare Connecticut race in which the Democratic candidates can say they represent change, and that is bad news for the Republicans.

Assuming any Republican can get past either Ned Lamont or Dan Malloy, waiting for him at the end of the tunnel are a yawning budget deficit, recalcitrant Democrats in the General Assembly, and four years of economic hell. Tax hikes and service cuts of some sort are probably unavoidable. If voters’ attentions are ever drawn away from national politics back to the mess in Connecticut, the consequences could be dire for whomever is in charge.

It may yet dawn on the hard-charging Republican candidates that Rell was right to sit this one out.

Chris Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.