Hugh McQuaid file photo
Jonathan Pelto (Hugh McQuaid file photo)

As a candidate for re-election, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is looking forward to debating a Republican, but he was reserved Wednesday when asked about a potential challenge from a third-party candidate on the Left.

Malloy, who is expected to receive the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention Friday, answered questions on the prospect of a three-way gubernatorial race following a press conference touting rising graduation rates in Connecticut.

Jonathan Pelto, a 10-year veteran of the legislature and former advisor to the last Democratic governor, Bill O’Neill, also made news Wednesday, telling the Courant he planned to form a committee next week to explore challenging Malloy. Pelto has been an outspoken critic of the Malloy administration, especially when it comes to education policy.

During the 2010 election, Malloy beat Republican Tom Foley by just 6,404 votes. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week suggested that voters are still evenly split between Malloy and Foley, who is again seeking the Republican nomination.

Asked about what impact a Pelto candidacy could have in the event of another close election, Malloy said, “Lot’s of things, in a close election, can make a difference.” But without mentioning Pelto, the governor pivoted to his desire to have a clear Republican opponent.

“I look forward to the moment when I can actually have a debate with a Republican as opposed to peoples’ idea of who that candidate will be. Because I think there are real differences on what we each feel is important,” he said.

And if there is also a third-party candidate who identifies with the political Left?

“You know, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Although Malloy did not directly address Pelto, he did say he was eager to run on his education policy record, which he was happy to discuss with a group of reporters after a 40-minute event highlighting four consecutive years of rising graduation rates in Connecticut. He also pointed to a report released last week indicating high school seniors ranked among the highest in the nation for both reading and math in 2013.

“Educational improvement, which has now been testified to in back-to-back weeks with real results, are something that I’m more than happy to run on,” Malloy said.

It’s also the area where Pelto has spent considerable time hammering the administration on his blog “Wait, What?”

In a Wednesday phone interview, Pelto said he believes Malloy is politically vulnerable on education issues.

Even with a Quinnipiac University poll suggesting voters agree with Malloy’s education policy 45 to 39 percent, Pelto said it’s a different story when it comes to public school teachers and higher education faculty.

Rank and file teachers haven’t warmed to Malloy’s education reform bill, which Pelto said “effectively did away with tenure.” He said educators also have not forgotten the governor’s assertion during the 2012 State of the State address that all teachers needed to do to earn tenure was “show up for four years.”

“Dan Malloy introduced the most anti-teacher, anti-public education bill of any Democrat in the country,” he said before adding that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also in the running for that distinction.

Pelto said rank-and-file educators, as well as many parents, see Malloy as supporting policies that encourage “teaching to the test,” which has alienated a block of voters who typically vote Democratic. It’s a group of the electorate that Pelto believes he could draw from should he decide to run.

“You’ve got these huge Democratic constituencies who are witnessing Malloy’s effort to undercut public education and I think that’s going to be a huge problem for him,” he said.

If he decides to run, Pelto said it won’t be on a single issue. But he said the education issue alone should be enough to concern a candidate who won by 6,400 votes in 2010. Teachers, retired teachers, and higher education faculty add up to more than 100,000 people, he said.

“Even if I just said I’m going to run on that and I’m only going to pull 20 percent of those people which — I think is very conservative — then he loses,” he said.

Pelto insists he won’t run only to spoil Malloy’s chances. He said he will move forward with a campaign only if he believes he has a chance at drawing enough votes to win in a three-way contest. Part of that process will require him to collect 110,000 signatures to qualify for public financing as a third-party candidate, a task he called “Herculean.”

But the longtime political consultant said he was intrigued that no one in the Democratic Party establishment or the Malloy campaign has reached out to him behind the scenes or publicly to dissuade him from running.