It seems that every election cycle we go through the biennial ritual of handwringing over how negative political campaigns have become. But this year, we may have hit an all-time low in Connecticut.
The problem is that in the current race for governor, we have two major-party candidates who are as dorky and unlikeable as any in recent memory. Add to that a television campaign that the Wesleyan Media Project has proclaimed the most negative governor’s race in the nation, and you have a toxic stew the likes of which we have never seen in the Land of Steady Habits.
When I get up at 5 a.m. and hit the elliptical, I turn on the local news and view the video portion while listening to music or a podcast. Hey, I’m as glad as the next guy that Connecticut’s television stations are flush with cash this time of year — the better to fund producers and reporters to lead with what bleeds.
But as I huff and puff through my workout, I’m confronted with an endless loop of grainy black-and-white images of dyspeptic men who look like they’ve just been paroled, but are actually vying to run the state. It’s as if Connecticut’s retailers no longer need to sell mattresses or helmeted gutters. With the exception of TV production crews, pollsters, and journalists, commerce in the state has basically come to a halt until we decide whom we like least.
The strategy for victory in political campaigns has evolved for the worse over the last 30 years. In statewide and national campaigns in which millions are spent and the stakes are high, the goal is simple: define your opponent in the worst terms possible and hope, through check writing, repetition, and guile, that it sticks. And if you’re not sure whether it’s worked, just rinse and repeat.
That’s precisely what Gov. Dan Malloy and challenger Tom Foley have done. Third-party candidate Joe Visconti looks amiable by comparison, but that’s probably because he has no realistic chance of winning and little money to buy ads, so Foley and Malloy just ignore him.
I’ve never met Foley, but he comes across as an uninformed bull in a china shop. Witness his dreadful performance at that doomed mill in Sprague this summer. Insisting emphatically they had “failed,” Foley carelessly blamed town officials and workers for the decision of a corporation to leave town. And don’t forget about that time he went charging into the Capitol to propose an ethics reform bill that would have made criminals out of half the legislature.
That kind of persona gives him problems with women. Witness the latest Quinnipiac Poll that shows him trailing Malloy among likely female voters by a walloping margin of 52 to 35 percent. Consequently, Foley has come out with an ad featuring himself with his wife, Leslie, their two adorable children, and Foley’s running mate, Heather Bond Somers. And he broke down and cried about his divorce when asked to describe one of his greatest failures in an interview with the CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas.
I have met Malloy once, having spent an hour with him in his Capitol office two-and-a-half years ago with the rest of the CT News Junkie editorial board. We were impressed with his broad policy knowledge and how he seemed closely attuned to the world around him. But as was the case with Foley, Malloy could become prickly when challenged or asked questions he didn’t like.
Indeed, Malloy recently admitted he had a lot in common with a less-than-cuddly mammal. It was a mildly humorous attempt at self-effacement, but in the end voters will have to look at his modest record and steel themselves against his abrasiveness.
My colleague Sean Goldrick, admittedly a highly partisan Democrat, did an admirable job of defending Malloy’s economic record last week on these pages. And my favorite economist, UConn’s Fred Carstensen, is a fiercely independent expert. This week in CT News Junkie, Carstensen noted that while Connecticut’s “economy contracted from 2007 to the end of 2011, a contraction longer and deeper that nearly any other state suffered,” the Malloy administration has undertaken a number of successful initiatives to sustain the recovery that’s already under way, even as Malloy struggled at first to clean up the mess he inherited.
If a candidate is a skunk, you can hold your nose and vote for him. But if your favorite is covered with barbed quills, you have to don thick gloves and body armor before you put that sheet through the optical scanner.
“I think people have a judgment to make,” Malloy told WNPR’s John Dankosky last month. “You don’t have to love me. I’m a porcupine. That’s okay.”
Yes, but he’s our porcupine.
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