DURHAM, Conn. — Former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays isn't shy about saying he thinks his fellow Republicans made a mistake in 2010 when they tapped Linda McMahon, the multi-millionaire former wrestling executive, as their candidate for Connecticut's first open U.S. Senate seat in years.
As part of his 10-minute pitch to the Republican faithful at local town committee meetings across the state, he calls for smarter government regulation, energy independence, addressing unaffordable entitlements, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, and getting the country's finances in order to attract private investment and ultimately more jobs. But Shays also criticizes McMahon, his chief rival for the party's Senate endorsement this year, for spending $50 million of her own money on her losing 2010 campaign.
"When I hear people say, 'I'm supporting this candidate because I think she's nice or not,' that's not the issue," Shays, 67, told town committee members in Durham, a quaint town in the middle of Connecticut. "We had a candidate who ran, who spent $50 million, and I wonder how you can be a fiscal conservative and waste $50 million, and why any of you can think she'll spend your money any differently."
Shays, who is returning to elective politics after losing the 4th Congressional District in the 2008 election, is trying to turn one of McMahon's biggest advantages into a liability by going after the spending of her personal fortune.
Shays, a moderate Republican who served from 1987 to 2009, is vying for the job now held by the retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent. In addition to McMahon, two other Republicans are also running, Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy and Hartford attorney Brian K. Hill.
In an interview last week from his campaign offices in Stratford, located in the home of William Samuel Johnson, one of Connecticut's first two U.S. senators, Shays called McMahon's campaign spending "totally obscene" and predicted it will be an issue in the race for the GOP nod, along with how she made her money at the WWE.
"She's basically in the soft porn business, that's what her business is," he said, referring to the WWE. "I can't imagine that that doesn't matter to people. I can't imagine that how someone makes their money is irrelevant."
Shays also reminds Republicans that McMahon lost in 2010 to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the state's attorney general at the time, by 11 percentage points. He says her loss by 138,000 votes ultimately hurt the chances of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, who lost to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy by about 6,400 votes.
"She brought down our governor, our potential governor. She brought down two congressmen," Shays said.
Asked to respond, McMahon's campaign spokeswoman, Erin Issac, accused Shays of missing the key issue in this year's campaign: jobs.
"It's disappointing that the congressman's negative campaign message fails to include addressing the greatest challenge facing our state," she said. "Nearly 160,000 people woke up in Connecticut without a job this morning and it's a shame that the congressman has no ideas to contribute to the discussion. In contrast, Linda has spent this week talking with folks about her plan to put people back to work."
She pointed to endorsements from 130 local Republican leaders as proof McMahon's message is resonating.
State Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola, who has remained neutral in the GOP showdown for the Senate, acknowledges he is concerned about the tone that is beginning to develop. Labriola, who took on the chairmanship last year, personally met with Shays, McMahon and their campaign managers and asked them not to go after one another in the run-up to the May 18 state convention and the Aug. 14 primary. Unlike Simmons in 2010, Shays has made it clear he will wage a primary if he doesn't receive the party's endorsement. The date of the primary is printed on his campaign stationery.
Labriola said he sees this year's Senate race as a crucial chance for the GOP to win a seat it hasn't held in 30 years.
"This race presents a huge opportunity for Connecticut to break from one-party rule and send a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time in a generation. While I expect our nominating process to be competitive, I would admonish our candidates to refrain from engaging in negative campaigning against fellow Republicans," he said.
Robert Poliner, a former state GOP chairman and the party's chairman in Durham, said he believes McMahon's campaign spending in the 2010 race will be an issue with voters, many of whom are struggling in the slow economy.
"She told a story, but the background of that was wild, out-of-control spending," he said. "In 2012, we're not about wild, out-of-control spending. It's about getting your spending for government in order."
Poliner predicted McMahon will be strong at the state convention and possibly the GOP primary. But he said that won't guarantee a general election victory.
"The fact of the matter is, this issue of can she or can't she win is a huge issue and Republicans should understand it's not about having a candidate with gobs of money who can run out there, it's about a candidate who can appeal to everybody in this state for their votes," he said.
Fred Raley, a Republican from Durham, remains undecided. He doesn't have a problem with how McMahon spent her money.
"It's a free country. They can spend whatever they want," he said. "If a person doesn't have a chance or a prayer to win, and they're just doing it for vanity or for whatever reason, (Shays) is saying, 'Let's spend the money some other way and put somebody up who can win.' I understand his point, but I still think it's her prerogative."