Source: Shays will join race for 2012 GOP Senate nomination

WASHINGTON–Republican Chris Shays is gearing up to run for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat, a source familiar with the former congressman’s plans said Wednesday. Shays plans to make his bid official in the coming weeks, and he will make a full-fledged run regardless of whether other possible GOP contenders, including Linda McMahon, also join the race.

Shays has encouraged speculation about his political future before, most recently during the run-up to the 2010 gubernatorial race. But this time, he appears definitive about his plans.

“Before the end of the month, no one will have any doubt” about Shays’ intentions, the source said.

The former 4th District congressman is currently based in suburban Washington, where he serves as co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. That panel was created to ferret out government waste in military contracting, and its final report to Congress is due at the end of this month.

That would free up Shays, who bought a condo in Bridgeport with his wife last year, to focus on what would surely be a grueling campaign. The source familiar with Shays’ plans said he does not intend to seek other work, but will campaign full-time.

Shays could be could be a political wildcard, especially since the GOP field has yet to take shape. But for now, all eyes remain focused on Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO who dumped $50 million into a failed 2010 Senate bid.

McMahon has said she’s seriously considering a second Senate run, and she was recently in Washington, where she met with retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the politician she may try to succeed. The two talked about national security issues, according to one source familiar with the session, a sign that she may be beefing up for a race.

McMahon would clearly be a major force if she decided to bankroll another multi-million campaign, even though she fell well short in her 2010 race against Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Still, McMahon has remained coy about her intentions so far. And other possible contenders remain on the sidelines, including former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker and ex-Rep. Rob Simmons.

Only one GOP candidate has officially declared: Brian K. Hill, an attorney and military veteran.

The Democratic slate is already crowded. Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz was the first to declare, followed by Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th, and state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford. The three-way contest has already featured some intense jockeying for the liberal wing of the Democratic primary.

Shays, a 20-year congressional veteran, was ousted from his 4th District U.S. House seat four years ago by Democrat Jim Himes in a hard-fought, narrowly-won contest. Himes’ victory came at least in part thanks to the coattails of then-candidate, now President Barack Obama.

“He was collateral damage” in a Democratic wave election, said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “I don’t think that election was a rejection of Chris Shays.”

Rothenberg said Shays would bring policy heft and political dexterity to the contest, but it’s unclear whether he could get serious traction stacked up against McMahon.

“He’s a proven vote getter…. He’s a proven commodity,” said Rothenberg. “He’d be a really interesting general election candidate, and the question is whether he can get that far.”

He and others were skeptical about that.

“If McMahon is a candidate, I wouldn’t give Shays much of a chance in the Republican primary,” said Art Paulson, chairman of the political science department at Southern Connecticut State University.

To be sure, Shays would face an uphill battle trying to make a political comeback in a presidential election year and a blue state where Obama is still relatively popular. He has some of the same strengths and vulnerabilities that Simmons’ displayed in his unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid.

Paulson said that one reason Shays may be looking to get into the race early is to forestall a bid by Simmons, “because if the two of them were both in the race in the primary against McMahon, neither would have a chance. They’d be splitting the same moderate-to-liberal Republican vote,” and McMahon would wallop both of them.

Like Shays, Simmons is a centrist, at least by national GOP standards, and a former congressman who strongly supported the Iraq War, an issue that dimmed his crossover appeal to Democratic voters. McMahon roundly swamped Simmons at the GOP state convention, and she beat him back a second time in last summer’s Republican primary.

He also struggled somewhat to raise money in the shadow of McMahon’s self-funded operation, and it’s similarly unclear how Shays would line up the necessary cash for a strong challenge. Rothenburg noted, however, that Shays still enjoys support in wealthy Fairfield County, which could give him a good fundraising kick-off.

“Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan-there’s a lot of Republican money there, and a lot of Chris Shays’ kind of Republican money,” Rothenburg said.

In addition, the political landscape for 2012 is far from settled, and it’s like to be a volatile election year. It’s possible that Shays, a moderate who appealed to swing voters and the last Republican to represent New England in the U.S. House, could ride a wave of discontent with the hard-edged partisanship that has paralyzed Washington.

“He brings a more moderate Republican reputation and he’s someone who has appealed to upscale swing voters,” Rothenberg said. “The problem is that Linda McMahon is a good speaker. She’s charismatic, she’s got a lot of pizzazz, and she’s got tons of money. Rob Simmons just couldn’t compete with that and… I think Shays faces a similar problem.”