Hartford — Linda McMahon won the Republican endorsement for U.S. Senate on Friday night for the second time in two years, setting the stage for another August primary with another former congressman, Chris Shays.
McMahon, a World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder who spent $50 million on a losing Senate race in 2010, is vying with Shays for the rarest of political opportunities: a second shot at an open Senate seat.
Delegates gave 60 percent of the vote to McMahon and 32 percent to Shays. The rest of the field — Brian K. Hill, Peter Lumaj and Kie Westby — fell well short of the 15 percent threshold to automatically qualify for a primary before vote switching began.
The night ended with overtones of a reality TV show or, perhaps, a WWE drama.
Denied the stage while party officials struggled to get a final vote after last-minute vote switching, McMahon grabbed a live microphone on the convention floor and began addressing the delegates and media in the fast-emptying exhibition hall of the Connecticut Convention Center.
“In this hand is the speech I was going to give tonight, but you have waited way too long, and I just wanted to have a chance to thank you and to tell you what a good race this was, that all of the candidates tonight are excellent leaders who love their state, and they love their country,” McMahon said. “But now is the time for us to unite and push forward.”
McMahon made an appeal for Shays, who served in Congress from 1987 to 2009, to drop out of the race, a theme her campaign began sounding as the votes still were being tallied.
“This is a decisive victory and a clear signal Republicans want a jobs creator, not a career politician,” said Corry Bliss, her campaign manager. “Congressman Shays should reflect on tonight’s results.”
Shays says he is committed to the primary on Aug. 14, when both parties will select nominees for open Senate and 5th Congressional seats.
Two years ago, McMahon staged a narrow convention victory over another former congressman, Rob Simmons. He ran a passive-aggressive primary, staying on the ballot but ceasing to actively campaign in the face of McMahon’s heavy spending.
Simmons, who was at the convention supporting Shays, said he made a mistake in 2010 with a make-or-break effort to win the convention.
“Shays needs a nice number to primary. He has it,” Simmons said. “Now, maybe the voters will favor a candidate who can win.”
The winner of the GOP primary this year will try to become the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in Connecticut since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Greenwich was elected in 1982 to his third and final term.
The seat is now held by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who defeated Weicker in 1988 and is retiring after 24 years in the Senate.
In McMahon and Shays, GOP voters have to choose between two candidates with obvious strengths and weaknesses, each of whom were rejected by Connecticut voters in the past four years.
Shays, 66, who represented Stamford in the General Assembly and the 4th District in Congress, has built a campaign around one issue: electability. He points to a record of winning elections and polling that shows him best matching up with the endorsed Democrat, U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy.
“This time, we’re going to be working as hard as we can to convince Republican voters that if you want someone who can win, and you don’t want Chris Murphy, I think I’m your guy,” Shays said.
Shays was elected to the General Assembly in 1974, swimming against a post-Watergate Democratic tide. He won a special election to Congress in 1987 after the death of U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, whose son, state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, nominated Shays on Friday.
He lost in 2008 to Democrat Jim Himes, who benefitted from the turnout Barack Obama generated in the district’s largest city, Bridgeport.
Shays said he can win elections, while McMahon lost in a Republican year to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a popular attorney general damaged by misstatements over his Vietnam-era service record.
McMahon, 63, of Greenwich, the former chief executive officer of the Stamford-based WWE, touts her record as a “jobs creator,” echoing the pitch made at the top of the Republican ticket by Mitt Romney.
Unlike Shays, who has raised only $1 million since last fall, McMahon faces no doubts about her resources. She already has spent $3.8 million, with all but about $500,000 coming from her personal funds. The $50 million she spent in 2010 was five times greater than a typical winning statewide campaign in Connecticut.
Her challenge is to convince voters that her 43 percent share of the vote in 2010 was a base on which to build, not a ceiling. She lost by 12 percentage points to Blumenthal.
McMahon was nominated Friday by four women, a target audience in her second run. Exit polling showed her suffering from a gender gap in 2010, and McMahon has made an effort to win over female voters.
Her nominators included Kathy McShane, the head of “Women for Linda,” and Maureen Gagnon, who leads “Job Creators for McMahon.” Another was Jayme Stevenson, the first selectwoman of Darien, where Shays grew up.
McMahon made an appeal to women in her truncated acceptance speech, noting it was 100 years ago that the first woman was elected to the U.S. Senate. If elected, she would be the first from Connecticut.
With a broad smile, she said, “Connecticut, we’re tired of waiting.”
It was an odd ending to a convention that otherwise had gone smoothly.
McMahon toured the floor after it was clear she would win, trailed by her husband, Vince McMahon, their children, Shane and Stephanie, their son-in-law, Paul Levesque, and her mother, Evelyn Carson
Delegates posed for photos with her husband, Vince, WWE’s chairman and sometimes villain, and Levesque, a tall, ponytailed wrestler known to WWE fans as Triple-H.
As she did two years ago, McMahon eventually found herself down front on the convention floor, penned in by reporters and photographers, waiting to be called on stage. But the call never came.
Chris LaCivita, her national campaign consultant, approached her and said, “I have an idea.”
LaCivita had realized that the microphones used by delegates to announce their votes were still live. McMahon, who was an occasional performer at WWE arena shows, grabbed a microphone and began addressing the hall, startling the party officials on stage.
At one point, she turned away from the delegates and toward the stage. She smiled and asked, “Still working up there, guys?”