Winning Strategy

11.19.14 10:45 AM ET

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy to Democrats: Grow a Pair

In his first term, Dan Malloy enacted a hugely ambitious progressive agenda. This fall, he ran on that record—and won. Now he’s got some advice for his dejected fellow Democrats.

When Dan Malloy was elected governor of Connecticut in 2010, he was the first Democrat to win an open race in the Nutmeg State since 1980. It would have been reasonable to expect, then, something of a cautious approach, one wary of shifting political winds in an otherwise reliably blue state.

Instead, Malloy enacted one of the most ambitiously liberal agendas of any governor in the nation, from higher taxes on the wealthy to a higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick leave for workers, protections for gays and immigrants, strict new gun-control laws, looser marijuana-possession laws, allowing the unionization of daycare workers, and outlawing the death penalty.

The result? A 25,000-vote victory out of more than a million cast in Malloy’s reelection bid against Tom Foley.

Now, having barely survived in a race that was not conceded, Malloy has some advice for his fellow Democrats. But first he wants to clear up a few things.

Newly elected Governor of Connecticut Dan Malloy speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, December 2, 2010, following a meeting of governors with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.     REUTERS/Jason Reed   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT) - RTXVBVO

Jason Reed/Reuters

“‘Barely?’ Let’s stop with the barely. 6,400 [votes], that was the barely,” he said in an interview, referring to his even squeakier 2010 race, which he won by half a percentage point against Foley. “Twenty-five thousand—that was a landslide!”

If his fellow Ds want similar results in the wake of a bloodbath of an election that was the 2014 midterms, Malloy says: “They can’t run as Republicans. Democrats can’t run away from what they have done. If there is a message out there, it is that we failed to embrace our successes because we thought that it would remind people that we are Democrats. Well, guess what? I am a Democrat. And I ran as a Democrat.”

Too many Democrats, in the face of national headwinds, ran as Republican-lite, Malloy said. And now many of those Democrats are heading home after long careers in public life, with some losing easily winnable races.

“What I think happened is people underestimated the ability of the voting public to put things in context,” he said. “If you are going to have a contest and it is going to be about who is the grayest, then Democrats lose. But the world is more black and white than it is gray, and if you fail to point that out, then don’t be surprised that you lost.”

In Connecticut, Malloy was saddled with underwater approval ratings since his first year in office, when he instituted the largest tax increase in state history. As the campaign season heated up, his opponent hammered away on the issue. Malloy was unconcerned, he says.

“I always felt that when we got to a serious contest in October, we would be OK as long as we stayed true to our principles and talked about what we accomplished,” he said. “Tom Foley wanted it put out that there we raised taxes. And he talked about it month after month after month after month. But once people started to pay attention, I pointed out what we did with the money, which was lower the crime rate, increase graduation rates, invest in infrastructure, create a Housing Department, create an Energy Department, create a Department of Aging. We did all of these things. It was the right policy, and ultimately people came around.”

Democrats elsewhere, he says, were scared of making contrasts, of owning up to their record and saying, “This is why we did what we did.”

“You didn’t point out the difference between who you are and who the other people are,” he said. “Because the other people are the people who drove the economy into the ditch. The other people are the people who want to make the rich richer and, quite frankly, if that makes the poor poorer, that is OK with them. And if you don’t point that out, don’t be shocked that people get confused.”

During the campaign, Malloy didn’t just embrace his record and his party. He did what only a few Democrats were willing to do: Embrace Barack Obama. The president headlined a rally in Bridgeport in the days before the election, at a time when other candidates, like Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, wouldn’t even cop to voting for Obama in his reelection bid.

“I was never going to run away from the president,” Malloy said. “It was not even in consideration. I support the president. I think the president has been right. I mean, look at the numbers, look at the job growth, sustained job growth—the greatest in American history. The. Greatest. In. American. History. Why didn’t people run on that? So you know that a bunch of political people say, ‘Well, it is not deep enough, and some people are hurting.’ OK, but talk to the people who have benefited. That is a better way of doing it than the other way.”

With such tough talk, Malloy should be a leader of the progressive left in much the same way that Elizabeth Warren or Howard Dean is. But the mild-mannered former prosecutor mangles his words too often and has too wooden a persona to have garnered much attention outside Connecticut. Indeed, what probably brought him the most attention in his first term was not at all the legislation he enacted but when he publicly rebuked another governor, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, after a meeting of the nation’s governors with Obama at the White House.

Then, Jindal, an unabashed contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said Obama was waving the white flag of surrender by focusing his economic agenda on raising the minimum wage. Such political statements are not customary after a meeting with the president, and Malloy hit back hard.

“I don’t know what the heck was a reference to white flag when it comes to people making $404 a week,” he told the press at a contentious news conference. “I mean, that’s the most insane statement I’ve ever heard, quite frankly.”

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Malloy’s plan to eke out a win against the GOP, and against the national tide, was to count on loyal Democrats grateful for what he had done rushing to the polls to support him. It worked, but it was not a last-minute strategy, he insists.

“I made that decision 40 years ago when I became a Democrat,” he said.

And if Democrats want to succeed going forward, Malloy suggests they follow his example.

“Have a compass,” he said. “And then follow it.”