Republican hopefuls no longer deferring to convention delegates’ decision

He was the party-endorsed candidate in 10 previous races for public office, and Rob Simmons ultimately couldn’t bring himself to wage an 11th as a challenger in a Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

When it was noted at last week’s farewell press conference that Connecticut Democrats had long ago lost their inhibitions about primaries, Simmons just smiled and said, “I’m a Republican.”

But other Republicans are overcoming what has seemed to be a hard-wired aversion to challenging the choices of delegates at nominating conventions.

Convention-endorsed Republicans began this week with potential primaries for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and four of the state’s five congressional seats.

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Rob Simmons drops plans to primary for GOP Senate nomination (Mark Pazniokas)

Even in the 1st Congressional District of Greater Hartford, where a Republican has not won since the Eisenhower administration, there is a primary fight for the privilege of facing six-term U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, who won with 72 percent of the vote in 2008.

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy said some candidates clearly are imbued with a heady sense that 2010 may be a watershed year for Republicans.

By the end of the week, candidates who qualified for a primary by winning 15 percent of the convention vote have to decide if they will pursue a challenge. Financial realities may yet discourage some challengers.

Others, such as U.S. Senate candidate Peter Schiff, and several candidates in the 4th Congressional District, failed to qualify at conventions and are trying to force a primary through petitions. They have until June 8.

Healy is skeptical that the sudden primary mania signals a deeper change in the personality of a Republican Party that still is badly outnumbered by Democrats in Connecticut.

“There are less of us,” Healy said. “We don’t have the luxury yet of having the huge bandwidth of activism they have on the Democratic side.”

It is different with Democrats. In 2006, the convention-endorsed candidates for governor and U.S. Senate each lost primaries to opponents with greater grass roots or organized labor support.

Even in the 1980s, when moderate Democrat William A. O’Neill was governor, he faced challenges from liberals for the Democratic nomination in 1982 and 1986. He was facing yet another challenge in 1990, when he decided to retire.

O’Neill blocked House Speaker Ernest Abate in 1982 and former Congressman Toby Moffett in 1986 from qualifying for a primary, which used to require 20 percent of the delegate vote.

In 2006, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman lost a Democratic primary to Ned Lamont over ideology: Democrats rejected Lieberman’s support for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq. Lieberman was re-elected as an independent.

“Philosophically, we are pretty much a more homogenous group” than the Democrats are, Healy said. “We understand how these things can sap resources and hurt our chances in the fall. There is a realization of that.”

When ideological splits have arisen, the GOP has chosen pragmatism, quashing a challenge from the right of U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1982. Prescott Bush Jr., the brother of the vice president and son of a former U.S. senator, was dissuaded from a primary against Weicker.

The consensus was that Bush might have won the primary, but was certain to lose in the fall to the Democratic nominee: Moffett, then a popular young congressman.

Simmons, 67, a former state legislator and three-term congressman, said last week the major reason he is not pursuing a primary against Linda McMahon was her money. She is pledging to spend $50 million.

But another reason was that as a challenger he would lose too much institutional support.

“That inhibits my ability to raise money, and it removes many members of my party from the ground game,” Simmons said.

Bill Curry, a Democratic challenger who won a primary for governor in 1994 and also was the party’s endorsed candidate in 2002, said he understands Simmons’ analysis.

“That answer of his is kind of an honest answer and not a dumb answer,” Curry said. “What Republicans probably said to Rob Simmons was that he shouldn’t count on any general election money from them.”

The GOP hardly was showing a rebellious streak in nominating McMahon for U.S. Senate and Tom Foley for governor, Curry said.

“The Republicans nominated two strangers for their top two positions, basically because strategists said it was the smart move,” Curry said.

McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, and Foley, a Greenwich businessman, each had been heavily advertising on television for months before the Republican State Convention.

“They both had money, and that’s what the party decided to do,” Curry said. “Their convention pretty much existed to ratify the money primary, which Foley and McMahon won pretty much by entering the race.”

Losing the convention was a blow for institutional candidates like Simmons and Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, who finished second to Foley for governor.

But Oz Griebel, the Hartford-area business leader who finished third, seemed thrilled to just to qualify for a primary. He had no expectations of winning, and none of his supporters see a primary as something to be avoided, said his manager, Ashley Maagero.

“We actually have not met with any resistance in terms of a primary,” she said. “They welcome the primary.”