Rocky Hill — Christopher Shays and Linda McMahon stuck to well-practiced lines about his electability and her jobs acumen in a debate Sunday, a steady back-and-forth that is taking on the familiar rhythms of the old Miller Lite tastes-great, less-filling beer commercials.
The rest of the five-candidate Republican field for U.S. Senate — Brian K. Hill, Peter Lumaj and Kie Westby — used the exposure on WFSB-TV to introduce themselves and plead for Republican delegates and voters to look beyond the front-runners, McMahon and Shays.
All five candidates pledged to repeal Obamacare, talked tough about the debt limit, dodged politically dangerous specifics on spending cuts and offered more nuanced answers about illegal immigrants and the need to compromise in Washington.
But at every opportunity, Shays returned to his electability and Washington experience, while McMahon countered with her record as a private-sector job creator and her plan to create jobs by lowering middle-class taxes.
“The bottom line is this: I know how to get elected,” said Shays, who represented the 4th Congressional District for 21 years until losing in 2008. “I know I was part of the solution, not the problem.”
“We have to look at job creators who go to Washington with a plan,” said McMahon, a World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder who was the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010.
By luck of the draw, Shays and McMahon again sat side-by-side, as was the case Thursday at their initial debate before 100 people at a school in Norwich. The GOP debate Sunday at WFSB’s studios here was the first to be televised.
McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own money in 2010, has the early lead among Republicans, while Shays so far has shown the greater strength in matchups with the leading Democrats, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy and Susan Bysiewicz, former secretary of the state.
Lumaj, an Albanian immigrant who describes himself as the only across-the-board conservative in the field, sharply dismissed McMahon as “an empty suit” and Shays as a closet Democrat and “opportunist” who left the state after his defeat.
Hill, an African-American lawyer and former soldier from Greater Hartford who says the GOP must broaden its base beyond Fairfield County and to the cities, was gentler, but still pointed in his view of Shays and McMahon.
“Nominating Linda or Chris is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Hill said. Instead, the GOP should be looking for new blood, someone who can avoid the looming “iceberg, Obama.”
The Democratic president is favored to carry Connecticut, as Democrats have done in the past five presidential elections. The state now has no Republicans holding federal or statewide office.
Lumaj was the only candidate who made an appeal to conservatives on social issues, and he was alone in saying he would vote for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
With their opposition, the other four would be in a small minority of Republicans. Only seven of 54 Republican senators voted against a gay marriage amendment in 2006. In the House, Shays was one 27 GOP representatives who opposed it, with 202 in favor.
All five reiterated their opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, but Shays and Hill were open to a legal status short of citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already here.
“On those that are already here, I would give them a blue card, not a green card,” Shays said. His proposed blue card would give them legal status, allowing them to work, pay taxes and travel to their native countries.
“It would allow them to live a fairly normal life, but a blue card will never allow them to be an American citizen,” Shays said.
Hill said Shays’ proposal “sounds like a fair compromise.”
Lumaj said as a practicing Roman Catholic he would not favor deportations, which could break up families, except for illegal immigrants who committed a crime.
“I don’t believe in splitting families, but I don’t believe in giving them amnesty,” Lumaj said.
Westby, as did all five candidates, said he favored immigration.
“There has to be a reasonable path to citizenship, because we are a nation of immigrants. Immigrants enrich our culture. We need to continue to be a nation of immigrants,” he said.
But that does not apply to those here illegally, he said.
“If people are here illegally, they have to go to the back of the line or leave the country, because no one should profit from their wrongdoing,” Westby said.
McMahon did not directly respond to whether she could support any path to legal status for those here illegally.
Without saying how they would offset the lost revenue, all five said they would reduce taxes. But most of them expressed a willingness to compromise with Democrats over taxes for a deal to cut federal spending.
“Compromise is a necessary part of our democratic government,” Westby said. “We need people who are willing to compromise, but we need people who are going to stand firm on principle.”
“We do need consensus building in Washington,” McMahon said. “We need people to break this gridlock that is there, because…we’re not advancing the ball down the field.”
Her answer was one of several that seemed to look past the Republican primary and was calculated to appeal to independents and Democrats in November.
She volunteered that she would be happy to work with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat who defeated her in 2010. Asked later to name her favorite Connecticut senator, she praised Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent.
Shays said he has proven he can work with both parties, then he pivoted back to the issue of electability: “First, we have to get someone elected.”
Hill said Congress is dysfunctional, but neither Shays nor McMahon is the solution. “We don’t need any more career politicians,” he said. “We don’t need any more self-funded candidates.”
Lumaj seemed to see compromise as overrated. He vowed never to appease liberals: “I don’t believe in compromising with them on their terms.”
All five indicated a willingness to vote against raising the debt limit, depending on the circumstances, even at a risk of the U.S. defaulting on its debt.
The moderator, WFSB anchorman Dennis House, ended the debate as he did a week earlier with the five Democratic candidates: posing a series of quick questions that could be answered briefly.
Last week, a question about trying marijuana caught the Democrats by surprise. All but Bysiewicz answered yes. On Sunday, the same question produced a negative answer from all five Republicans.
Shays, a Christian Scientist, doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol or coffee.
A question about regular attendance at religious services drew an enthusiastic yes and a broad smile from Westby. His wife is a minister.
Asked about the 2010 election, only one of the five Republicans — and not who you might think — said they voted for the GOP nominee, who was McMahon.
Shays, who moved to Maryland after losing in 2008, said he did not vote for senator in Connecticut in 2010. Lumaj voted in New York. Hill, who was a write-in candidate, voted for himself.
McMahon refused to reveal her vote, saying she wished to maintain the sanctity of the secret ballot. The only candidate who admitted voting for her was Westby.