WATERTOWN — Tom Foley, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, secured another line on the November ballot on Tuesday by winning the endorsement of the Independent Party over Trinity College professor and party activist John Mertens.
The party has about 15,000 registered voters, making it the state's third largest political party. But for Foley, the group's backing is important for a strategic reason: a cross-endorsement from the minor party gives him that second line on the ballot.
That could strengthen his position against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose name also will appear twice, under both the Democrat and Working Families lines.
Appearing on the Independent Party line also could give Foley a boost among unaffiliated voters and some Democrats, who may feel more comfortable voting for him as an Independent line than as a Republican.
At the party's caucus Tuesday night, Foley netted 24 votes; Mertens received 16.
Foley pitched himself to party members as an independent-minded Reagan Republican who will bring change to Hartford.
"I don't consider this ... merely endorsing the Republican candidate,'' he told 40 party members who met inside a vacant CVS building on Main Street. "I'm the equivalent of the independent candidate, the independent voice the voice for change ... the voice for transparency ... the voice for ordinary citizens having someone fighting for them at the Capitol, shaking up the status quo."
Foley told the group they have the power to tip the balance in what polls show could be a close contest.
"We have a very, very blue state. In some cases, the Democrats ... really have a stranglehold on the voters,'' he said, noting that he lost to Malloy by about 6,400 votes when the two men faced one another in 2010. "This is an opportunity for the Independent Party to change the outcome of an election."
Mertens, a professor of engineering at Trinity College, said the Independent Party should be truly independent, and not allow itself to be used as a tool to strengthen a major party candidate. He called the caucus "a watershed moment" in the party's history.
Formed in 2006, the party has been riven by conflict, with two factions fighting for control. Mertens, who has been involved in the party from the beginning, said one of the factions is made up of Republicans who are seeking to use the party for their own ends.
"To us, the best chance ... to put forward the real values of this party, I believe, that tonight you need to nominate one of our own to run for governor,'' Mertens said, "someone who's independent of the two major parties, someone who has worked hard to build this party, someone who is qualified to be governor. ... I humbly believe that I am the man for the job."
The event had the feel of a small-town political gathering, with each of the party's members jotting down the name of the man they supported on a scrap of paper, which was then placed inside a clear plastic pretzel jar.