Self-proclaimed political outsider Linda McMahon stunned former 2nd District Congressman Robert Simmons Friday by winning the Republican State Convention’s endorsement for U.S. Senate on the first ballot.

But Simmons, who hinted in an interview earlier this week that he wouldn’t continue the battle for the nomination if he lost at the convention, announced late Friday he would carry the fight into the Aug. 10 primary.

Weston economist Peter Schiff, considered a long-shot, fell well short of the 15 percent vote needed to qualify for a primary. But Schiff said that he would take advantage of Connecticut’s open primary law and petition his way onto the Aug. 10 primary ballot.

The official tally, announced just before 11:10 p.m., had McMahon outpolling Simmons 737-632, with 44 votes for Schiff.

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Linda McMahon and her son, Shane, celebrate her endorsement for the U.S. Senate by state Republicans (Mark Pazniokas)

“Tonight is the start,” McMahon, co-owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, said. She quickly aimed a jab at the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whom she said hasn’t faced a tough race in years. “I venture to say we’re going to lay the smackdown on him come November.”

McMahon, who has repeatedly pitched herself as a common-sense fiscal conservative and political outsider, reached out to both Simmons and Schiff and their supporters in a bid for unity.

“I look forward to campaigning with Rob,” she said. “I’m going to talk to Peter every day for financial advice.”

“Let’s go forward tonight, let’s work this,” McMahon added, “We’ve got a tough fight.”

There were indications in a Congressional Quarterly interview earlier this week that Simmons might be ready to back McMahon if he lost the convention.

“I have said in the past that I thought I was wise to allow the convention winner to proceed without a divisive primary,” he told CQ. “I think that’s correct course. I truly do.”

But when questioned by one reporter as he approached the press room to announce his plans about 30 minutes after the convention recessed for the night, Simmons said, “Do I look like a quitter?”

In a brief statement to reporters, the former congressman from Stonington said rank-and-file Republican voters deserve a chance to choose between himself and McMahon.

“I believe the best thing I can do to help the Republican Party to victory in November is to give them another choice,” he said.

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Rob Simmons announces his intention to conduct a primary campaign for the Senate nomination (Jacqueline Rabe)

Simmons also tried to put the best face on his finish – which still captured 44.5 percent of the delegate vote – by contrasting his campaign’s modest funding against McMahon’s huge war chest. According to campaign finance reports compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Simmons had raised $2.9 million as of May 1 and spent $1.7 million. McMahon had raised $16.6 million–most of it her own money–and spent $14.6 million.

“I’m grateful and honored by the support of over 14,000 donors,” Simmons said. “I believe there is a lot of time left in this campaign and I have sufficient time to make a compelling case to the voters.”

As the initial voting ended around 9:50 p.m., sources close to both campaigns said McMahon was about 40 votes away from a majority of the more than 1,400 delegate votes cast. But a series of switches that occurred over the next hour following the initial balloting swung overwhelmingly in McMahon’s favor.

Simmons’ backers watched helplessly as Schiff’s delegates, despite urgings from the economist to back the former congressman, swung to McMahon in large numbers.

“It’s really disappointing,” state Sen. Tony Guglielmo of Stafford, said. “I would think they would want to stick with Rob at least through the first ballot. But some people really like the idea of being with the front-runner.”

“It should have been an easy choice,” said state Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich, another Simmons supporter, who said McMahon’s history with the professional wrestling industry didn’t compare to Simmons’ record of military service. “She has a checkered past and he has an honorable history.”

State Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, a key McMahon supporter, said the roughly 50 switched votes that pushed McMahon over the edge could be credited to three things:  Schiff supporters realizing their candidate’s popularity was less than they’d hoped, others uncomfortable with Simmons’ past statements on abortion rights –  and some who simply wanted to wrap things up because the time was approaching 11 p.m.

The story of how she became a millionaire was compelling enough to state Sen. Daniel Debicella of Shelton. “My God, she’s a self-made millionaire,” he said. “The name recognition also helps.”

Other Simmons supporters said privately that the allure of a GOP campaign backed by McMahon’s considerable personal wealth was too much to overcome.

“I didn’t like Linda’s tactics,” Schiff said as the vote-switching – an allowed procedure under convention rules – neared its end. “I thought a lot of pressure was put on our people to switch their ballots. I think the people should make their own decision without all of that.”

Schiff added that he still plans to be in the Aug. 10 primary, and would take advantage of Connecticut’s open primary system to petition his way into that contest. He also said he thinks his chances are better if it’s a three-way contest including Simmons rather than simply a Schiff-McMahon match-up.

Ridgefield firefighter Vinny Forras, who waged a low-budget bid for the Senate nomination, gathered just seven delegate votes.

Friday’s opening night for the convention also gave Connecticut Republicans a chance to say farewell and thank-you to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election.

Rell, a Brookfield Republican who has held the governor’s post for the past six years, choked up at several times during her 10-minute speech as she pledged to help and praised the overall quality of the GOP field without endorsing anyone.

“It’s nice to get together again,” she said, warning the crowd as it chanted her name. “I said, ‘don’t get me started.’”

Rell became governor after her former running mate, ex-Gov. John G. Rowland, became embroiled in a bid-rigging scandal that drove him from office and into a 10-month federal prison term. “I want to tell you all it has truly been my honor to serve as your governor,” she said. “This is a position I honestly never imagined I’d hold.”

Though she has refrained from making endorsements, the governor frequently spoke about the “excitement” the Republican candidates were generating, adding she would assist the eventual nominees. “I want to be out there.”

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