Shays to question McMahon’s electability and GOP bonafides

Chris Shays just laughed when asked to lay out the path he intends to take around, through or over Linda McMahon, the biggest obstacle to the former congressman’s comeback bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

“That’s the last [expletive] thing I want to talk to you about,” he said, grinning as he leaned across a table in a quiet corner of the Legislative Office Building cafeteria in Hartford. “Forget it. I’m not going to talk strategy.”

OK, wrong question.

Asked to explain why Republican primary voters should prefer him over McMahon, Shays didn’t hesitate to describe her as a multi-millionaire who contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats before her GOP awakening, helping to defeat good Republicans in 2006.

Hetherington Shays

Rep. John Hetherington talks to Chris Shays (r) about an upcoming campaign strategy meeting.

“I can’t believe that any thoughtful Republican would be able say, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter,’ ” Shays said.

More importantly, he said, McMahon, the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, demonstrated during her previous run for an open Senate seat in 2010 that she cannot win a general election, even with a $50 million budget.

“It’s amazing,” Shays says. “It was totally reckless spending.”

It is a decent one-two punch, delivered with gusto. But it is essentially the same approach taken in the 2010 race by another former congressman, his friend Rob Simmons, to no avail.

Can Shays do a better job than Simmons of sowing doubts about McMahon’s credentials and electability to Republican convention delegates and primary voters? And after a congressional career that depended on his winning support from independents and some Democrats, can he appeal to the GOP base?

“I’m not going to the right of her to win the primary,” Shays said. “And frankly I don’t even know where she is. I don’t know where she stands on any issue. Any issue. And you know why I don’t know? Nobody else knows either.”

Shays, who turns 66 next week, has yet to formally raise the curtain on his second act in politics. Instead, since finishing a week ago as the co-chairman of a commission on wartime contracting, he has opened a headquarters in Stratford and hired a campaign manager, Matt Wylie.

He has no press staff yet. But Shays is starting to do press, starting to make the public argument that he is the Republican Party’s best hope for winning a Senate race in Connecticut for the first time since 1982, when Lowell P. Weicker Jr. still belonged to the GOP.

He criticized McMahon’s refusal to talk in detail during the 2010 campaign about Medicare and Social Security. McMahon said meaningful discussion how to reform the two programs could only come in bipartisan environment, not a campaign debate.

“What she meant was, ‘Don’t force me to talk about something so controversial.’ In my judgment, anybody taking that approach has no business running for office,” Shays said. “The whole point of campaigns is to listen, learn and then lead.”

Shays was in the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday, taking notes as he listened in on a House GOP forum on the economy, then meeting with some state legislators. Tonight, he is to tape an interview on WFSB’s “Face the State,” the public affairs program that airs on Sunday morning.

In the LOB, he was interrupted by Rep. John H. Hetherington, R-New Canaan.

“How are you, my friend? God bless you,” Shays said.

Hetherington asked about bringing a potential supporter to a campaign meeting.

Shays suggested it might be premature.

“We will be talking strategy. If she is not in the camp, it wouldn’t make sense for her to come,” Shays said. “What’s said there, stays there.”

Early polling shows Shays competitive in a general election matchup with the two best-known Democrats, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. McMahon trails the Democrats, but is strongly favored by Republicans.

The last time Shays was on the ballot, it was 2008. He was the only Republican member of the U.S. House from New England, watching a gathering wave of support for a Democrat, the first black presidential nominee, Barack Obama.

He pitched himself as a bipartisan centrist, a Republican who could easily work with a President Obama, even though Shays was then the Connecticut chairman of Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign. He supported President Bush on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he frequently voted against Bush.

It was in keeping with much of his career. In 1998, he was one of only four House Republicans to vote against every impeachment count brought against President Clinton. But after 21 years in Congress representing the 4th District, he lost to Democrat Jim Himes.

One of his political friends is the man whose seat he is seeking: Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent who still belongs to the Democratic caucus. Lieberman, who took the seat from Weicker in 1988, is not seeking re-election.

“By the way, I wouldn’t have run against Joe Lieberman. I really like Joe. Joe and I have been friends for years,” Shays said. “I like how he interacts with people. I like his common sense.”

Now, after a long career of reaching across the aisle, Shays has to make an unfamiliar argument, that he is the better Republican than McMahon.

She contributed $15,000 in 2006 and 2007 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which successfully targeted Simmons and Rep. Nancy Johnson in 2006 and Shays in 2008. She also gave $7,800 to Rahm Emanuel, the former DCCC chairman, and his leadership PAC, which she says was prompted by her WWE business dealings with Emanuel’s brother, Ari, a Hollywood talent agent.

“The very person who is running as a Republican now worked to defeat me. It blows me away. Worked to defeat me. Worked to defeat Nancy. Worked to defeat Rob. And she succeeded in defeating Rob and Nancy. I survived in ’06, but not in ’08,” Shays said. “I think about that a lot. There is nothing nice about it.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, slightly more than half of the nearly $90,000 contributed to federal campaign committees by McMahon and her husband, Vince, from 1989 to 2009 went to Republicans.

One of the beneficiaries was Shays: He received $8,000 from the McMahons in his last two elections.

Shays’ loss in 2008 one of several blows. While closing out his campaign books, Shays discovered that an expected $100,000 surplus actually was a deficit, and that a trusted campaign manager, Michael Sohn, had been embezzling campaign funds.

He says his 2008 campaign has a debt of about $270,000, with Sohn responsible under a signed agreement for $250,000 to cover legal and forensic auditing expenses. His Senate campaign has extra layers of financial controls.

“When you have that kind of experience, you have got to go overboard,” Shays said.

Shays’ first campaign finance filing is not due until January. It will be closely watched by Republicans to see if Shays can raise money nearly four years after his last race. McMahon is not announcing her budget this time. Neither is Shays.

“We will have whatever we need to win,” Shays said. “We will have what it takes to get our story out.”