McMahon ignores Simmons’ return as strategists weigh impact on primary

Linda McMahon did her best Thursday to ignore Rob Simmons’ re-emergence as an active candidate, but others tried to assess if there now is a real fight for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination.

“I thought the primary was over, so I’m watching and waiting to see what happens,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Simmons had a full day of media interviews, ending with a taping of WFSB’s “Face the State,” to be aired Sunday. And his newly cut ad was released, though it will not be on the air until Saturday.

Simmons commercial

Rob Simmons: ‘I’m still on the ballot’

In the 30-second spot, Simmons jerks a thumb at a sample ballot behind him and says, “You do have a choice. I’m Rob Simmons. I’m still on the ballot.”

One question raised in Washington: Was this Simmons’ plan from the moment he shut down his campaign in May after losing the endorsement of the Republican convention?

“Is this a strategy of, ‘Suspend my campaign so Linda McMahon can’t spend two months attacking me and then get back in it with 20 days to go and see how I do?’ ” asked Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

One thing was clear Thursday: At least for the short term, Simmons dominated a news cycle, drawing attention back to a Republican primary that seemed to be all but over.

A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed McMahon with a 27-percentage point lead among likely Republican primary voters over the inactive Simmons, with Peter Schiff trailing her by 39 points.

Reporters trailed McMahon to Pomfret, a small town in the Quiet Corner of rural, northeastern Connecticut, to question her about Simmons’ new ad and his participation in a debate next week with Schiff.

“You’d have to ask Rob why he is doing the debate,” McMahon said.

McMahon said she is not taking the nomination for granted, but she has declined to debate Simmons and Schiff, saying her focus is Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

McMahon in Pomfret

Linda McMahon greets Stephen Adams in Pomfret. (Mark Pazniokas)

Ignoring Simmons, she said, “I think the Republicans in the state of Connecticut know where we stand. Peter and I are very similar on the economic issues. I think Republicans know where we both stand on those particular issues.”

McMahon said she would reconsider “if there were issues we needed to get out, but I don’t think there are, so I’m going be focusing on the general election. I’m ready, I’ll be ready to debate Richard Blumenthal.”

“I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ve made my mark in this camaign by getting my message out there, by focusing on the issues, by focusing on the fact that people want jobs to get put back to work.”

In her 20-minute speech to an audience of about 45 people at the Northeastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, McMahon said Congress needs to balance the budget, though she identified no major cuts, only a call for eliminating duplicative services.

Was she saying the budget could be balanced by eliminating duplication?.

“I’m saying it’s a start,” McMahon said. “It’s a hard process. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a hard process.”

In Washington, political operatives on both sides of the aisle were left scratching their heads about Simmons, a former three-term congressman who began the race for the GOP nomination as the heavy favorite, only to see McMahon chip away his lead with extensive television advertising that he could not match.

She has contributed more than $21 million to her own campaign and promises to eventually spend $50 million. In dismissing his staff and going inactive, Simmons said he could not afford to compete, but he remained on the ballot and continued to campaign for others.

Democrats barely contained their glee at his new commercial, since it may force McMahon to pivot away from Blumenthal to focus on winning the nomination.

They hope Simmons will resume raising questions about the violent and sexually explicit programming of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company McMahon co-founded with her husband, Vince.

“Rob Simmons is joining the ranks of conservatives who believe Linda McMahon’s record of reaping millions in profits while denying health insurance to employees, peddling violence to kids and hiding widespread steroid abuse makes her unfit to represent Connecticut in the U.S. Senate,” said Deirdre Murphy, press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Simmons’s new ad makes no mention of McMahon or the WWE.

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on Simmons, and Cornyn tried to make light of the move when reached at the U.S. Capitol. Asked for his assessment, he said, “I really don’t have a clue.”

But Duffy said she believes national Republicans are furious at Simmons. Among other concerns, should he somehow score an upset primary win, Simmons will have little money to compete with Blumenthal, she said.

“Their reaction is unprintable,” she said. “They cannot believe what he’s doing because it seems so reckless. There’s also this belief of, ‘If you’re going to run, then run and stop playing games.’ “

In Pomfret, the same opinion was expressed by Peter Mann, a manufacturing representative who listened to McMahon address the Chamber of Commerce.

“He should be in or out,” Mann said.

Before the luncheon, Stephen Adams, a Republican candidate for probate judge, said Simmons was the topic of conversation at his table. He said no one was completely surprised by his re-emergence, since he kept his name on the ballot.

“I guess it was just a question of time before he came back and did it,” Adams said.

Lisa Coe of Jewett City, a nursing supervisor who says she is a former supporter of Simmons, said it was time for Simmons to step aside. She described herself as an enthusiastic backer of McMahon.

“He seems like he’s lost steam,” Coe said.”He’s starting to sound like a lifetime politician.”

But, for the moment, an unconventional one.