After a soft launch three months ago, Chris Shays raised the curtain on his U.S. Senate campaign Wednesday with pointed references to his unexpected victory 25 years ago over two wealthy businessmen in a Republican congressional primary.
He was not merely indulging in nostalgia. To win the GOP nomination in 2012, Shays will need to recapture the energy and mojo of his 1987 upset, showing he can replicate on a statewide level tactics that worked in the state’s smallest and most densely settled congressional district.
Shays, 66, who represented Fairfield County in the U.S. House for 21 years until his defeat in 2008, is the wild card in the GOP primary: a polished, if underfunded campaigner up against the deep, deep pockets of Linda McMahon.
“We need to select a United States senator who possesses the courage, the record and the experience to get things done,” Shays told an audience at the Old State House in Hartford.
He punched the word “experience,” as did his wife, Betsi, in her 10-minute introduction. Each time, their audience applauded the jab at McMahon, who was not mentioned by name.
The crowd included Rob Simmons, the Republican former congressman who made a similar argument against McMahon two years ago.
In 2010, Connecticut Republicans collectively swooned over McMahon, the World Wrestling Entertainment entrepreneur who spent $50 million of her personal fortune to campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat.
A Greenwich business executive with a southern drawl, McMahon was an intriguing story, whose association with the cartoonish sex and violence of the WWE was a hook for some voters and a turnoff for others, particularly women.
She won the GOP convention endorsement and primary, only to lose by 12 percentage points in a Republican year to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a popular attorney general damaged by misstatements over his Vietnam-era service record.
Now, with another open seat at stake, Shays needs to sow the seeds of doubt about McMahon, while convincing the party’s primary voters that he has the drive and appeal as a 66-year-old defeated congressman to win on the statewide stage.
His three-month soft opening was not reassuring. After publicly setting a goal of $1 million, he raised $422,145, not including the $100,000 loan he and Betsi made to the campaign.
His cash on hand at the end of the year was $316,000, roughly the amount McMahon spent on the staging at her Election Night party in 2010. Decorations on Wednesday were limited to handheld signs and three bunches of red, white and blue balloons.
Out of politics for four years, Shays’ campaign kickoff had the vibe of a rock ‘n’ roll reunion tour, complete with shout outs from the lectern to folks like state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and former Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, who were with him back in the day.
Shays is trying to get the band together one last time.
In 21 years in Congress, Shays represented the district that elected two independent Republicans, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and his successor, Stewart B. McKinney. In many ways, he followed their example, stressing a voting record in which he often broke with GOP leadership.
The district includes some of the wealthiest communities in America, including Greenwich and Darien, plus the corporate center of Stamford and the state’s largest city, Bridgeport, where Shays owns a condominium.
His independence was an asset in general elections, yet undoubtedly will be used against him by McMahon in a primary.
In 2008, when he was co-chairman of John McCain’s presidential campaign in Connecticut, Shays described himself as a Republican more than willing to work with a Democratic presidential nominee who was certain to carry Connecticut.
In his speech Wednesday, Shays criticized the Democratic Senate majority and President Obama and promised to vote to repeal Obama’s health plan and work to balance the budget by the end of his six-year term.
“Until we get our financial house in order, nothing else matters,” he said. “Passing budgets that get us to balance is putting America first. It is what will get America back on track and our fellow Americans back to work.”
Shays was a deficit hawk in a Congress, yet he also was an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq, a conflict financed with deficit spending by President Bush and the Congress that ballooned the national debt.
He called for tax cuts and tax simplification Wednesday, but he also proposed rebuilding America’s infrastructure, an issue embraced Tuesday night by Obama in his State of the Union address.
In a passing reference, he criticized U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, whom he considers the likely Democratic nominee, as voting in lockstep with House Democratic leadership and “the misguided Obama agenda.”
But the thrust of the launch was to offer a contrast with McMahon, if indirectly.
“Three years ago, America elected a president with no experience, and we are paying the price. He spoke about hope and change, but he was elected without the skills, experience or background to lead our country through these difficult times,” Shays said. “Connecticut can’t afford to make the same mistake again, whether it’s the White House or the Senate.”
Shays said he believes in democracy.
“I believe a candidate for public office should be elected, not anointed,” Shays said. “I can win the Republican primary in August, and I can win the general election in November, and that is what I am setting out to do.”
The McMahon campaign ignore Shays’ criticisms. Instead, a McMahon spokeswoman, Erin Isaac, mildly suggested that voters want more than a recycled congressman.
“For nearly 20 years, Chris Shays represented the people of Connecticut’s 4th District in the United States Congress,” she said. “But in 2012, we need to elect people committed to changing not only the negative political culture, but the ineffective way Washington does business.”
In an introduction with a folksy tone and a pointed intent, Betsi recalled her husband’s career in public service, beginning with a Peace Corps stint, followed by a state House campaign in the post-Watergate year of 1974.
Every anecdote offered an implicit contrast to McMahon’s late-in-life interest in politics, her inexperience in the give-and-take of legislating and her unlimited resources.
“Chris listened, and he learned,” Betsi said, recalling 1974. “Our living room became headquarters. We moved the furniture, hung voter lists and maps on the wall.”
He won by 500 votes in a year when Republicans lost 60 seats in the House. He stayed for 13 years.
“During those years, he learned a lot about state and local issues, the political process and the art and craft of making policy,” Betsi said. “He gained experience and got things done.”
When U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, R-4th District, died in 1987, Shays jumped into the race. He qualified for the primary by winning the bare minimum of 25 delegate votes.
“To this day, we refer to them as the ‘magnificent 25,’” she said. “Some of those folks are in this room.”
One of them was the late congressman’s son, John McKinney, who was then a college student. Once again, he is endorsing Shays.