New London — Chris Shays pressed a cell phone tightly to his right ear as he left a campaign stop at the Muddy Waters Café and walked three blocks to a campaign aide’s parked car. On the line was a potential donor.
Without a late influx of cash, Shays will be the only U.S. Senate candidate without a television commercial before Connecticut’s Aug. 14 primaries, and his rival for the GOP nomination, Linda McMahon, is denying him the free exposure of more debates.
“Not having the resources makes it dicey for me,” Shays said.
So, Shays worked the phone as he walked along Bank Street with an aide, Pilar Gonzalez, passing a bar and a tattoo parlor offering military discounts. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he crossed a broad plaza near the broad Thames River, where a ferry eased from the pier.
At 66 years old, four years out of politics after losing his Fairfield County congressional seat in 2008, the underfunded Shays acknowledges he is the underdog against McMahon, the self-funding entrepreneur who was the GOP nominee in 2010.
He trails badly in the polls, but pollsters often are confounded by primaries, where the turnouts are low and the hardest question to answer is exactly who will show up — especially at the height of the summer vacation season.
A candidate could win the GOP primary with little more than 60,000 votes. In 2010, only 124,754 Republicans showed up for the primary to choose nominees for governor and U.S. Senate, a turnout of not quite 30 percent.
“What I believe is my supporters are far more motivated than hers,” Shays said. “If I won this primary, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. If I lost, I wouldn’t be surprised. If I obviously had more resources I’d tell you I’d win, no matter what.”
Shays said the lack of resources has been the biggest surprise of the campaign.
He raised $1.4 million and had only $326,733 in available cash as of June 30. McMahon has given her own campaign nearly $8 million on top of the $50 million she gave to her losing effort two years ago.
“A lot of Republicans don’t give in primaries, and the other thing is some of them don’t think you can beat someone who spent $60 million,” Shays said. “They don’t understand the dynamics of a primary.”
The previous night, Shays had his last shot at a significant television audience, clashing with McMahon in a one-hour debate broadcast live on NBC Connecticut. It was only the second one-on-one debate with McMahon and Shays.
The two Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, Chris Murphy and Susan Bysiewicz, have debated twice and will meet twice more before their Aug. 14 primary: Sunday in Bridgeport and July 30 in New London.
McMahon has declined invitations to Republican debates from the same sponsors: the League of Women Voters in Bridgeport, in partnership with Cablevision and Hearst News; and The Day and WTNH television in New London.
McMahon clearly is looking past Shays to the fall election. At least twice during the NBC debate, she ignored Shays to contrast herself with Murphy, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Her campaign’s field organization is focused as much on unaffiliated voters who can be helpful in November as the Republicans who will make a choice next month between her and Shays.
Shays said McMahon’s refusal to debate in heavily Republican Fairfield County is especially galling. Cablevision is taping the Democratic debate for rebroadcast on its system, exposure the GOP now will miss.
A cost-effective staple of his campaign is “town-hall teleconferences,” mass meetings on the phone with GOP voters. Retail politics can be tough in the summer, where a large audience can be tough to find, as was clear the day after the NBC debate, when Shays campaigned in New London.
Shays lunched with the Kiwanis Club of New London in the cafeteria of Mitchell College. He had an audience of 10, including a man with dementia and his caregiver. They accompanied the elderly man’s son, John Russell, the former deputy mayor of New London.
It was a friendly conversation about issues, especially transportation — always a topic of interest in eastern Connecticut, where residents feel ill-served by the highway network and mass transit.
Russell wanted Shays to explore passenger rail service on a freight line that runs from New London through Storrs, Worcester, Mass., and onto Brattleboro, Vt., connecting 14 college campuses.
Then Shays stopped in at Muddy Waters, lunching on tomato and basil soup and mingling with diners enjoying a late lunch on a deck overlooking the Thames. The stop was more small talk than politics.
Elsewhere, Shays has fought the tag of RINO, being a Republican In Name Only during his 21 years in Congress.
Shays voted with his party 76.8 percent of the time from 1990 through 2008, significantly less than the House average of 88.7 percent. In his last years in Congress, he broke with his party on five of the dozen key votes of the 109th Congress tracked by the Almanac of American Politics.
He was one of 41 Republicans to oppose lowering fuel efficiency standards for cars and one of 30 to vote against allowing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On social issues, he was in the GOP minority on gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research.
He was one of 51 Republicans to override President Bush’s veto of a bill allowing federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, one of 27 opposing a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and one of just 11 opposing a ban on transporting a minor across a state line to obtain an abortion.
But Shays also was a deficit hawk and a supporter of the war in Iraq.
“I haven’t voted for a tax increase since 1991, a good long time ago,” he said.
Earlier in the season, Shays regularly made a hard sell at Republican town committees about his GOP credentials, compared to those of McMahon, a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment whose political debut was her run for Senate in 2010.
Shays told his audiences that he is the only battle-tested Republican, the only electable Republican, in the race for U.S. Senate, an office won by no GOP candidate in Connecticut since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1982. His stump speech used to include a moment when he would picked up a book and bang the table once, twice, three times. Then he’d hold it up even with his face.
“This is Rahm Emanuel,” Shays said, showing a book with a picture of the congressman who oversaw the Democrats’ takeover of the U.S. House in 2006, thrusting a victorious fist in the air.
The book is “The Thumpin,’ ” an account of how Emanuel placed a bull’s-eye on the back of Shays and other vulnerable congressional Republicans in 2006, winning back the House with a coordinated campaign of attack, attack, attack.
Shays was one of a handful of targeted Republicans to survive in 2006, leaving him the only GOP congressman in New England for his final term. The book, by Naftali Bendavid of the Chicago Tribune, first became a prop in 2008, when Shays was targeted once again — this time successfully.
The subtitle was “How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.” Shays gave away signed copies in 2008, with “ruthless” underlined in blue marker.
This year, Shays reminds his audiences that McMahon was a donor to Emanuel’s efforts to elect a Democratic majority and make Nancy Pelosi speaker. It was a point he made Wednesday night on NBC.
After the debate, Shays told reporters that McMahon was ripe for an upset, that her support was paper thin.
“She never once explained why she contributed to make Nancy Pelosi speaker. Why did she do that?” Shays asked. “Why did she contribute to keep her speaker and then why is she running as a Republican? Why would she do that? Why?”
McMahon ignores those questions, dismissing Shays as a career politician. In a year in which the tag of political insider may be the worst epithet, Shays offered himself as an experienced legislator.
“What I know,” he said, “is I have the experience, the knowledge and, frankly, the guts to get things done down there.”