In the wake of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s razor-thin reelection November 4, scores of pundits across Connecticut have weighed in on why Republican challenger Thomas C. Foley could not push the ball across the goal line against an unpopular incumbent.
Now it’s our turn.
As a chief executive who presided over the largest tax increase in Connecticut history after promising not to raise taxes, Malloy was ripe for the picking in 2014. (His approval ratings even in Washington was so low that Vice President Joe Biden called him “O’Malley” at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony in May.)
Many voters were additionally put off by Malloy’s relentlessly negative personal attacks on Foley, portraying him as an out-of-touch plutocrat and vulture capitalist who bought and flipped companies for the sole purpose of throwing widows and orphans into debtors’ prison.
And yes, Malloy’s attacks were intensely personal, calling Foley out for the name of his “$5 million yacht” and owning “fighter jets” (what, you didn’t know that Foley has his own air force?). The Malloy camp also endeavored, preposterously, to link the Republican to “hard-right” Tea Party groups. (In Connecticut? Really?)
But the Greenwich businessman did himself no favors by running a lackluster campaign that failed to address what Tom Foley would actually do if elected. Instead, Foley mainly portrayed himself as the un-Malloy who would reverse the incumbent’s disastrous policies.
Why have American political campaigns devolved into vicious mudslinging melees, particularly since 2008? For one thing, negative campaigning works, and even highly personal attacks that would seem to have little or no bearing on a candidate’s fitness for office increasingly gain traction with voters. Foley’s cardinal sin, apparently, was his success in the business arena.
Throughout the long, expensive campaign, Foley stayed on the high road – never attacking Malloy personally. Instead he focused on the incumbent’s “failed” policies and promised to do better.
If negative campaigning resonates with voters in the short term, in the long run it feeds into one of the most alarming threats to our democracy — declining voter participation. It is true that Barack Obama’s historic 2008 run to the presidency stimulated a spike in voter participation — particularly among young people and minorities — the long-term trend is downward, as voters in many races become so disgusted with negative ads from both sides that they can’t hold their noses long enough to vote for either of them.
If ever there was an election cycle in which a Democratic incumbent in a deep-blue state was vulnerable, 2014 was it. But Tom Foley never made his case with regard to why voters — especially independents, who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in the state — should vote for him.
And even though Republicans posted modest gains in the General Assembly, 2014 represents a lost opportunity for the GOP in what not so terribly long ago was one of the most Republican states in the Union.