- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut’s Republican Party chairman succinctly summed up the likely theme of this year’s gubernatorial rematch between Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his GOP opponent, Greenwich businessman Tom Foley.

“I’ll give you the top three issues in this campaign,” said Jerry Labriola Jr. “The economy. The economy. The economy.”

While Labriola contends the race will be a referendum on “Connecticut’s failing economy” and Malloy’s handling of it, Democrats argue progress has been made since the former Stamford mayor won the governorship four years ago, inheriting a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit. They say now is not the time to change direction, even plastering signs at their party’s annual fundraising dinner Wednesday night that read “Progress 2014” to hit home the message.

“We can’t turn back after coming so far,” Nancy DiNardo, chairman of the Connecticut Democrats, warned the crowd of about 1,000 people at the Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner in Hartford.

Ultimately, the voters will decide on Nov. 4 whether Connecticut is better off now than it was four years ago. But now that Foley has secured his party’s nomination with a primary victory Tuesday, they can expect to hear arguments from both sides about whether Connecticut is finally recovering from the national recession.

“Right now people see the economy as in bad shape and not getting better. So, because of that, it’s a big issue,” said Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “If voters perceived that the economy was in good shape, the other issues could come into play. But because the vast majority see it as in bad shape, it crowds out other issues.”

National Republicans wasted no time in reminding voters that Malloy agreed in 2011 to raise taxes by $2.6 billion over two years to help cover the projected $3.3 billion budget deficit he inherited, an issue that still haunts him, according to recent Quinnipiac polls. The Republican Governors Association sent out an email on Wednesday accusing Malloy of misrepresenting his position during the 2010 campaign on whether he’d increase taxes, saying he can’t be trusted.

Labriola said he expects national Republicans will devote substantial resources to Connecticut’s race, saying the Republican National Committee rates the state one of the top three gubernatorial races for a GOP pick-up.

“Dan Malloy is rated one of the most vulnerable Democrat governors in the country for good reason,” Labriola said. “And that is, the reason our economy is lagging behind the rest of the nation is due mainly to his policies of high taxes and government overreach.”

Such criticisms appear to sting Malloy, who argues that Connecticut has made progress because he’s had to make tough decisions. He cites among his accomplishments 55,000 new private-sector jobs and the lowest unemployment rate, 6.7 percent, in five years. In a fiery speech at the Democratic fundraising dinner, Malloy accused Foley of rooting for Connecticut to fail.

“He was in the cheap seats, saying cheap things, while we were working hard,” Malloy told the crowd. “And that’s unacceptable.”

Recognizing his political vulnerability on the economy, Malloy urged the Democratic activists on Wednesday night to reach out to their neighbors and family members who “may be disaffected because the economy has not treated them as well as it should” and tell them that the Democrats are “building a new tomorrow, brighter than the day before.”

Malloy went on the offensive by releasing his first TV ad targeting Foley, which included video of an appearance where Foley was upstaged by union leaders and a local Democratic official who disputed any link between Malloy’s policies and the closure of Fusion Paperboard in Sprague. The ad includes audio of Foley telling the town’s first selectman she is partially to blame for the closure. The workers also believed Foley was blaming them during the exchange.

The ad also resurrects accusations Foley’s company closed a Georgia textile factory. Foley, however, has maintained it was closed by a subsequent owner.

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