HARTFORD, Conn. — Former Connecticut U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays pitched his years of political experience Wednesday as he formally announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, attempting to contrast himself from his main rival for the Republican nomination, wealthy former wrestling executive Linda McMahon.
Without mentioning McMahon — the GOP's 2010 Senate candidate — by name, Shays told about 200 supporters at the Old State House in downtown Hartford that he's the one who can immediately fill the job being vacated by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman and will work to put "the country back on track and our fellow Americans back to work."
"We can't afford to send someone to the United States Senate who doesn't have the experience and a proven record of getting things done in Washington," said Shays. "There's no time for on-the-job training. We need someone who is ready on Day One."
Shays, 67, officially announced his candidacy just a few minutes away from the State Capitol complex where he served as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1975-1987. Shays later went on to win a special election in the 4th Congressional District, filling the vacancy caused by the death of U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney.
He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from August 1987 until January 2009, losing the seat to Democrat Jim Himes in the 2008 election. Late last year, he wrapped up work as co-chairman of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting.
On Wednesday, he pledged to make it a top priority to balance the federal budget within his six-year Senate term; vote to repeal President Barack Obama's health care legislation and allow states to draft plans that meet their particular needs; vote to simplify federal tax laws and regulations; invest in infrastructure such as roads and airports; and push for energy independence.
Since filing his campaign paperwork in October, Shays has touted his legislative experience in his pitches to Republican town committees, while also reminding the GOP faithful of his independent streak. Former Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, a former colleague of Shays' in the state House, said he believes Shays can appeal to voters seeking someone with experience, as well as those interested in an outsider. Connecticut has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in three decades.
"Chris Shays was an outsider even when he was elected. You heard today his independent voice, working with both sides of the aisle. If we look at Washington today, and actually if you look at our state, we don't have that," Fedele said. "He has the experience, he has the courage to do the right thing, which unfortunately is something that government lacks today."
But Tom Foley, a McMahon supporter and the Republicans' 2010 gubernatorial candidate, questioned why voters would support someone with two decades of history in Washington.
"I'm not sure that we want his experience, who wants a current congressman's experience," asked Foley, who referred to Shays as a career politician. "I think today, we're actually suffering for some of the policies and legislative actions that were taken by the Congress while he was serving."
Foley said he believes Connecticut Republicans would be better off rallying behind McMahon, who he said learned a lot from her last race, honed her skills and put together a new campaign team. McMahon lost in 2010 to former Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal by 11 percentage points after spending about $50 million of her own money.
Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who lost the GOP's endorsement to McMahon at the 2010 convention and later the GOP primary, said he hopes Republicans will decide this time to choose a candidate with political experience over the one with wealth.
"The Republican Party in my race thought that money could buy the seat. It now realizes that's not true," Simmons said. "The Republican Party is now confronted with a new piece of information: The most money spent per vote of any race in the history of this country does not buy a seat. It doesn't even bring it close."
Besides McMahon, there are several other Republican candidates in the race. They include Hartford attorney Brian K. Hill; Southbury attorney Kie Westby and Fairfield attorney Peter Lumaj. State Republican Chairman Jerry Labriola, who has remained neutral in the race, said he was recently informed by Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy that he was no longer running.
Labriola has asked the candidates refrain from personal attacks over the coming months and keep to the issues. The party's convention is scheduled for May 18. The primary will be on Aug. 14.
"I'm confident that our process will ultimately be a healthy process and we'll come out of it united and ready to take on the Democrats and restore a proper balance to Connecticut by sending a Republican for the first time in 30 years to the U.S. Senate," he said.
McMahon, 62, formally announced her candidacy in September at a Southington business that manufactured custom-built coil processing machines. It was an opportunity for her to highlight her business experience as the former CEO of the WWE.
"I believe we need people with business experience," she said, referring to herself as a job creator. "We didn't accomplish that the last time around."