McMahon wins GOP Senate nomination; Simmons promises support

CROMWELL — Republican Linda McMahon won a decisive victory on Tuesday in the three-way primary for U.S. Senate, ensuring she will face Democrat Richard Blumenthal in a closely-watched campaign this fall.

“For the first time in decades we’re going to send a Republican senator to Washington,” McMahon told about 300 cheering supporters.

With about 54 percent of the precincts tallies in at 10 Tuesday night, McMahon was easily edging out her rivals, garnering 49 percent of the vote, compared to 29 percent for ex-Rep. Rob Simmons and 22 percent for investor Peter Schiff.

Rob Simmons conceded his off-again, on-again race for the Senate nomination about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and said he would support McMahon.

So ended a strange campaign that pitted a self-funding multi-millionaire against a veteran public servant who dropped out of the campaign for nearly two months before resuming his effort right before the election.

Earlier in the day, front-runner McMahon looked cool and confident, despite the 90 degree heat, as she strode up to greet voters at Danbury High School this afternoon.

“I’m gonna do the right thing,” Laura Ansel, a 30-year-old public school worker, called out to McMahon as she went in to vote. “Need some change,” Ansel said, in explaining her support for McMahon.

Meanwhile, one of McMahon’s rivals, investor and Tea Party favorite Peter Schiff was sweating, literally, over every vote, as he worked a Middlebury polling station under the hot noon-time sun.

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GOP Senate candidate Rob Simmons in Simsbury (Nicolas Kemper)

“Are you a Republican?” Schiff called out to one voter before he was even get out of his car. Dressed in khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt, Schiff didn’t seem to mind the humid day, as he successfully persuaded one voter after another to support him.

Carl Niedmann, a 72-year-old insurance broker, arrived planning to vote for McMahon, because, as he put it, “she’s got the money and she’s winning in the polls.” But his heart wasn’t in it and after a few minutes chatting with Schiff, he’d changed his mind. “Maybe it’s throwing my vote away, but at least I’m being honest,” Niedmann said.

Schiff quickly moved on to his next target, Gail Banwell, a high school teacher, who seemed equally eager to hear his pitch, peppering him with questions about how he might build consensus around his conservative ideas. “I went ahead and voted for the guy,” she said on her way out. “I liked what he had to say.”

The third contender in this volatile GOP primary, former Rep. Rob Simmons, seemed to enjoy the long odds he faced, crisscrossing Connecticut to meet voters and hand out his signature potholders, printed with the slogan, “No Problem Too Hot to Handle – Rob Simmons for U.S. Senate.”

Simmons got his first break this morning when his wife – Heidi Simmons – voted for him shortly after 7 in Stonington. She said it was her first time voting as a Republican in a primary.

Of course, she said it was also the first time – since he began running for public office in 1990 – that Simmons has faced a competitive primary. “Usually, whenever he ran for public office, he could count on the party to support him,” she said.

This race has been anything but usual. McMahon has invested $22 million of her own money, so far, building broad name recognition as she blanketed the state with television ads, mailings, and her own presence. She noted today that she’d done more than 600 events since first announcing her candidacy almost one year ago.

A Quinnipiac University poll from last fall showed McMahon 11 points behind Simmons, 28 to 17 percent. But by Monday, she had opened up a 22-point lead against the former congressman, with Schiff running at a distant 15 percent.

Although McMahon went into Tuesday’s vote with a commanding lead in the polls, her campaign operation was in high gear, acting as if the race was neck-and-neck.

Over the course of the last three months, McMahon has watched warily, after she beat both rivals at the GOP convention in May to win the party’s nomination, only to see them both come back for a full-fledged hot summer fight. Simmons, who dropped out of the contest after McMahon won the party’s endorsement, re-entered the contest about two weeks. And Schiff successfully petition his way onto the ballot depositing coming up short at the convention.

The winner will face Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in what will likely be one of the most bitterly contested, expensive Senate races in the nation this fall.

McMahon started out on Tuesday by casting her own ballot in Greenwich at 7 a.m. (She wouldn’t say how she voted in the hotly-contented governor’s race, but said “I unabashedly will tell you I voted for myself” in the Senate contest.)

She had eight other stops on her schedule, making her way from Norwalk to Newtown, before heading to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cromwell to watch the returns come in.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” McMahon said outside Newtown Middle School, where some voters greeted her enthusiastically and others side-stepped her entourage, which included a camera crew from Inside Edition. “I’m looking forward to having the vote count come in tonight.”

By early afternoon, turnout appeared light at many polling stations across the state, although the end of day rush could dramatically ramp up the tally.

MaryAnn Doran, who greeted McMahon in Danbury and is that city’s registrar of voters, said that by 2 o’clock, turnout in the city among registered Republicans was about 17 percent-with 1,185 people casting their ballots. Turnout among registered Democrats, who outnumber GOP voters in the city, was about 11.2 percent, she said.

Doran said she cast her own ballot for McMahon. “You want to win in November, so you go with the best.”

Schiff had nearly a dozen polling station stops on his schedule and then was set to head to his victory party headquarters in Milford. In between courting voters, Schiff questioned the latest poll and lamented the lack of press attention to his campaign, even as he held out hope for a strong showing.

Simmons, traveling his wife and his scheduler, Jessica Dussault (one of the two non-family members still working for his campaign), made stops at least one polling station in each Congressional district, visiting Glastonbury, Manchester, Simsbury, Watertown, Shelton and Guilford before returning to where he started, Simmons’ hometown of Stonington.

“I wanted to put my foot in each district,” Simmons said. He also managed to put his foot on each issue, meeting people in each district who highlighted different parts of his experience, from his time in Vietnam to his time in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He blasted McMahon, saying her candidacy was “packaged like a bar of soap – looks good, sounds good, you get everything but a sample.”

Some voters seemed to agree, saying they were not sure what they would be getting if they voted for her.

“I’m not sold on her,” said Joan Salbur, a 55-year-old Realtor from Newtown. “I’m  not sure if she has the experience.” Salbur said she wasn’t too keen on Schiff or Simmons either, and didn’t know how she would cast her ballot when she walked into the booth.

But many other voters were firmly in McMahon’s camp.

“She’s real tough. I like everything about her,” said Veronica Dina, a nurses’ aid from New Milford who stopped to get a photo with McMahon, before heading off to cast her vote.