The race will become a statewide referendum on whether voters want Malloy to become the first one-term-and-out governor since independent Lowell P. Weicker Jr., 20 years ago, or if they want to extend Malloy's lease on the Governor's Residence another four years.
But analysts say Foley, who was fuzzy or downright noncommittal on major state issues during his primary campaign against state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, will have to offer specifics if he is to challenge Malloy.
That will take a change of tactics for the Greenwich businessman, whose vagueness in the primary might have been a product of an initial 30-point lead over McKinney in May.
Gary L. Rose, chairman of the government and politics department at Sacred Heart University, said the Foley victory was not a surprise, since he was the endorsed candidate at the Republican convention in May and it was unlikely voters would buck leadership.
"But what was a surprise, was how well John McKinney did," he said. "He could have been the stronger candidate in the general election."
McKinney pledged his full support to Foley on Tuesday night after it became clear that he was going to lose.
Rose said while Foley has been appealing to his conservative base, now he has to mobilize unaffiliated voters. And for that, he must move to the center.
"I think he's going to have to re-strategize somewhat," Rose said. "They like moderate Republicans in Connecticut."
Rose said voters will be attracted to so-called pocketbook issues. "There, he has problems," Rose said of Malloy, whose $1.6 billion tax hike in 2010 was the largest since Weicker pushed through the income tax in 1991. "Taxes and jobs are bread-and-butter stuff."
Scott McLean, professor of politics at Quinnipiac University, said McKinney was clearly the stronger candidate, but voters spoke. "Foley's victory can only make Malloy's team happy that the prepared script will now commence," McLean said. "It will be about which candidate you like more."
"Foley won big, but this is not a terrible defeat for McKinney," McGee said. "We'll see if Foley defines himself a little more on the issues."
Foley focused on Malloy's tax and spending increases during the primary campaign. Foley has charged that employee-friendly legislation including paid sick leave is raising the cost of doing business in the state.
Power of incumbency
A mere 6,400 votes separated Foley and Malloy in the 2010 election, with the state's largest cities propelling the former Stamford mayor to a controversial victory that was marked by a ballot shortage and voting irregularities in Bridgeport.
Malloy, with the power of incumbency in his favor, is arguably stronger than he was four years ago. He has a record of accomplishment to run on, but it is also a record that an untested candidate like Foley can attack.
Foley, who says he wants to restore "pride" in the state, has said he would flat-fund the current budget, but has not offered how he would achieve that in the face of more than half a billion dollars in scheduled mandatory pay increases.
Foley has also said he would not ask the state's 50,000 unionized employees to reopen their contracts, and he left open the door for the possible return of highway tolls, which Malloy opposes.
Since Malloy took office, Foley contends, Connecticut has alienated job creators with high taxes, runaway spending and a tangle of red tape, ranking the fifth-worst state for businesses in a CNBC survey. In 2012, Connecticut was the only state to see its gross domestic product shrink, another blemish cited by Foley.
Democrats need to show that Connecticut has been on the fast track to passing minimum wage reform, paid sick leave and the toughest gun control law in the nation under Malloy in response to the December, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Key to Malloy's triumph four years ago was his cross-endorsement by the Working Families Party, which delivered 26,000 votes to him and is being counted on again by the governor and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
Registration numbers don't favor Republicans in blue-state Connecticut, with 705,403 Democrats and 401,374 Republicans as of Primary Day. But the 801,407 unaffiliated voters will hold the key. It's up to Foley to give voters solid reasons to dump Malloy and vote for him.
And the participation of two petitioning candidates for governor, a tea party contractor from West Hartford named Joe Visconti, and a left-leaning former state lawmaker from Mansfield named Jonathan Pelto, could affect the margins of both Foley and Malloy's support.
Staff writer Neil Vigdor contributed to this article.