With commission job done, Shays steps into Senate race

WASHINGTON–With his duties on a wartime contracting commission ended, Republican Chris Shays said Tuesday he has hired a campaign manager, signed a lease for his headquarters in Stratford, and even loaned his nascent Senate bid $70,000 to kick things off.

In an interview Tuesday, Shays said he was not “intimidated” by his Republican rival Linda McMahon or her supporters, and he brushed off questions about the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive’s deep pockets. Shays said he was eager to get back to retail politics and make his own pitch to Connecticut voters.

murphy eyes shays at congressional hearing

Rep. Chris Murphy (background) eyes former Rep. Chris Shays (c) at a hearing Tuesday. The two are potential 2012 Senate rivals

“I couldn’t be more excited to be in this race,” Shays said, “and I believe if I win the primary, I win the general election.”

The ex-GOP House member, who represented Connecticut’s 4th District for over two decades, said his campaign will provide a stark contrast to McMahon’s, in both style and substance. “We are in this race to present a position that is remarkably different from hers, in terms of qualifications, in terms of ideas, in terms of what we want to do for our great country,” Shays said.

Shays remarks on Tuesday came after he testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform, his final congressional appearance as co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. At that session, Shays lapped up bipartisan praise from his former House colleagues, including a compliment from Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, a member of the oversight committee and a rival candidate for Connecticut’s U.S. Senate seat.

Murphy started his five minutes of allotted questioning time at the hearing by thanking Shays for his “long service” to Connecticut and for “how seriously” he took his work for the wartime commission. Shays responded in kind, calling Murphy’s question to the panelists “tremendously insightful.”

But enough of all the niceties. Now that Shays is officially done with his work on the commission, a fiercely-contested Senate contest is coming into view. Asked about McMahon, Shays didn’t even let a reporter finish the question before saying that McMahon seems to have moved up her campaign announcement with the aim of scaring him off.

“My sense was that she was going to announce in January and decided that if she jumped in earlier, I would somehow be intimidated from getting in this race, which is really silly,” Shays said.

Shays said he has already mailed in his election filing paperwork and should be an official candidate by the end of the week. He has a campaign manager on board (he wouldn’t say who just yet), and he plans to tap his communications director today. He’s also in talks with a consulting firm.

Over the weekend, Shays said he signed a lease for his campaign headquarters in Stratford. And before that, he pumped $70,000 of his own money into the campaign’s coffers so he could start to pay staff and expenses while his fundraising operation gets up and running.

Shays shrugged off questions about how he would overcome McMahon’s financial advantage. Although McMahon hasn’t said how much of her fortune she might spend on the 2012 contest, the former WWE executive spent $50 million of her own money in 2010 to win the GOP nomination and lose to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

“I am not intimidated by that one bit,” Shays said of McMahon’s self-funding options. “I did pretty well as a congressman. I raised $3 million one year, $4 million another. We will have the money we need to present our case.”

Shays closed out his 2008 House campaign with a significant debt, in large part because of legal expenses he incurred after discovering that his campaign manager had embezzled funds. The ex-congressman’s most recent Federal Election Committee filing from that contest, dated April 14, 2010, shows outstanding obligations of $257,364.

The former congressman was similarly dismissive when asked about Tuesday’s Public Policy Polling survey, which showed McMahon swamping Shays 54 to 19 in a Republican primary. Shays pivoted from his dismal primary numbers to his stronger general election showing.

“I don’t feel Republicans want to lose the general election once again,” Shays said. He pointed to several polls that have also showed McMahon with high unfavorable ratings and him doing better than her against any current Democrat candidate in a general election match-up.

Shays also said he has learned loads from the failed bid of ex-Rep. Rob Simmons, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 2010. Shays said the playing field in that contest was heavily tilted toward McMahon, noting that the wife of the state’s GOP party chairman, Chris Healy, worked for McMahon’s campaign.

“Rob was faced with the case where the chairman of the party’s wife was on the payroll of his opponent, and everything they did at that [2010 Republican] convention was to screw Rob Simmons,” Shays said. “That’s not going to happen to me.”

Shays argued that in Connecticut and Washington, too, McMahon hasn’t convinced the political establishment that her chances are better in this election than they were in 2010.

“What did the establishment see? They saw her lose an election,” he said.  “I think you will find a lot of people who have learned their lesson.”