Published July 29. 2012 4:00AM
Republican Christopher Shays, the former Fairfield County congressman running for U.S. Senate, found a scrum of reporters and photographers waiting for him after his final debate with Linda McMahon.
"You know, this is the first time I've done this," quipped the 66-year-old. "So be nice to me."
With 21 years in Congress on his resume and a dozen years before that in the state General Assembly, Shays has participated in more than a few debates and certainly has been swarmed by the media before.
Shays' spirits that evening in West Hartford were high, but his poll numbers are low. McMahon, the Greenwich wrestling mogul and party-endorsed Republican, held a nearly 30 percentage point lead over Shays in the latest opinion survey by Quinnipiac University.
If those predictions translate into results in the Aug. 14 primary, Shays soon could be an expired attraction.
One veteran reporter in the crowd, aware of Shays' penchant to speak off the cuff, played off the candidate's "first time" remark: "It may be the last time."
With barely a pause, Shays agreed.
"It may be," he said. "I'll say this honestly - I thought this may be the last time. And I think that would be a loss for the state, and our country."
Shays was one of the last moderate Yankee Republicans in high office during his time representing Connecticut's 4th Congressional District from 1987 through 2008. He had a reputation as a maverick and an early budget hawk, playing a role in Republicans' "Contract With America" in the mid-1990s but also riling party leaders and garnering headlines such as "Shays Once Again Annoys the Powerful."
He was pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-animal welfare, pro-gays in the military and one of a handful of Republicans to vote against impeaching President Clinton.
"I didn't think the impeachable offenses were proven and I didn't think the proven offenses were impeachable," he said.
He was New England's only Republican congressman when he lost his seat in 2008 to Democrat Jim Himes.
Shays' rumble with McMahon next month could be the most difficult ballot contest of his life. Cash-strapped and trailing in the polls, he concedes that his opponent has clear advantages going in to the primary.
Yet he still believes he has a chance to pull off an upset. He sees an enthusiasm gap between his supporters and McMahon's that will become apparent once ballots are cast and counted.
"I have not seen many people that are enthusiastic for her, except some of the people who are public and now have to make sure they've made the right choice," Shays said in an interview this month during a New London campaign stop.
If he can eke out the win, Shays anticipates a surge of momentum similar to what Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts experienced in early 2010 when he seized the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat.
"If I win the primary, I win the general election," Shays said.
Name recognition low
Residents of Bridgeport, Shays and his wife, Betsi, have been putting in long summer days campaigning. On most mornings, he is up at 5:30 a.m. greeting Metro-North and Shore Line East commuters. Later, he visits retirement homes, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, various fairs and business groups.
"He's getting out there talking to as many voters as possible," said Amanda Bergen, his campaign's communications director. "His conversion rate is 100 percent; when people who didn't know him meet him, they become Shays supporters."
Yet the June Quinnipiac poll also found that many Connecticut Republicans outside his old district don't know much about Shays.
Forty-eight percent of Republicans held a favorable view of him, 17 percent had an unfavorable view and 31 percent had not heard enough about him to form an opinion.
He's a big mystery to New London County Republicans: 32 percent viewed Shays favorably, 8 percent unfavorably and nearly 60 percent said they had not heard enough to decide.
McMahon's poll numbers among statewide Republicans were 77 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable and 7 percent in the haven't heard category. In New London County, those numbers were 40 percent, 36 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Former Groton Town Mayor Jane Dauphinais says she is voting for Shays.
"I think he is the only Republican who can win against the Democrats," Dauphinais said. "Mrs. McMahon has too many negatives that a Democratic opponent will be more than happy to remind voters about."
During a recent visit, Shays spoke at a Kiwanis Club of New London meeting and caught a late lunch at Muddy Waters Café downtown. He circulated from front counter to back patio, chatting up patrons and handing out campaign cards.
Former City Councilor John Russell, a registered Republican and Kiwanis member, was impressed that afternoon by Shays' demeanor and "common sense grasp of the issues."
But Russell is waiting to hear more from McMahon before deciding how he'll vote. And he's not sure whether either Republican could prevail in November against the potential Democrats in the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, and Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state.
"I really don't know in this state if Republicans have a chance," Russell said. "Right now we have none anywhere. We don't have any (Republican) congressmen, any senators, any governors."
Votes on war, taxes
Shays grew up in Darien as one of four sons in a Republican household. He and Betsi were sweethearts at Darien High, where he led the hockey team and won the state tennis championship in singles his senior year. He went on to Principia College in Illinois and later New York University to earn two master's degrees.
Shays attempted to register as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and has said he would not have served if he were drafted. He and Betsi instead joined the Peace Corps and worked in Fiji.
In 1974, he was elected to the state House of Representatives. A defiant Shays served several days in jail in 1985 after refusing to leave a witness stand in protest of judicial corruption.
He was elected to Congress in a 1987 special election after the death of Republican Congressman Stewart McKinney.
One of the tougher decisions for him early on was the 1991 vote to authorize the first Gulf War.
"My first reaction was, how can a conscientious objector vote to bring our troops into Kuwait?" he said. "Then I basically determined that we couldn't let Saddam Hussein dominate Kuwait and that my decision wouldn't be based on my own personal view about combat. I had to vote in the national interest."
His vote a decade later for the second Iraq war was far more controversial.
"I actually believed that Saddam Hussein was a greater threat in 2003 than he was in 1991 in Kuwait," he said last week. "I believed that he had weapons of mass destruction, and I knew he had used his chemical weapons."
He was vice chairman of the House Budget Committee during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last time the federal budget showed a surplus.
But Shays caused considerable friction in the Republican Party during his seven-year crusade to strengthen campaign finance laws and ban "soft money." He introduced the House version of the bill that became known as McCain-Feingold. However, the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision later sidestepped parts of the law by lifting spending restrictions for corporations and unions.
Shays never signed Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" and vows that he won't if elected senator. "The pledge says you won't vote for any tax increase, even if you lower taxes somewhere else," he said.
Low on cash
After losing his seat to Himes, Shays was appointed co-chairman of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and Betsi bought a residence in St. Michaels, Md., and sold their waterfront house in Bridgeport.
Shays said the taxes on the Bridgeport home had more than quadrupled over 10 years and "the trend line scared the hell out of me."
He later bought a condo in Bridgeport and said he considered running for Connecticut governor in 2010 but decided against it.
Instead, he chose the Senate race. Shays said he believes he can do a lot of good as a senator and thinks that former Congressman Rob Simmons of Stonington, his friend and old GOP colleague, cut himself short two years ago by not mounting a sustained challenge to McMahon between the party convention and the primary.
Simmons suspended his campaign after the convention but re-entered the race in the final weeks before the 2010 primary.
McMahon won that primary over Simmons and financier Peter Schiff, but lost the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, despite having spent nearly $50 million of her own money.
Whoever wins this year's race gains the seat of Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring.
McMahon's campaign has outspent Shays' by more than $7 million so far, has run numerous television commercials and possesses the fallback resources of a vast WWE fortune.
Shays had just $326,733 cash on hand as of June 30. Not long ago, he feared that his campaign was too broke to do TV ads, but it managed to produce a 30-second spot that began airing last week on Fox News.
"My biggest fear is that some people may feel that I can't win because I can't beat her in money, and then they'll stay away," Shays said.
He and McMahon have similar stances on many issues. Both vow to repeal the national health care law, eliminate the estate tax and simplify the tax code with lower rates on individuals and corporations that would be paid for by closing tax loopholes and ending some write-offs.
Shays, who has endorsements from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and GOP strategist Karl Rove, says McMahon is not qualified for the Senate job, is "incredibly ignorant" on the issues and would be "clueless" if elected.
He criticized her decision to decline all meetings with newspaper editorial boards or do more than two one-on-one debates with him.
"She wants more to be a senator than to do what a senator has to do," he said. "I have the experience, the knowledge and frankly the guts to get things done down there. I'm not going to be a junior senator."
He offered his strongest assessment when meeting with the New Haven Register's Editorial Board. He said he couldn't even support her against the Democrat in November if she wins the primary.
"I have never run against an opponent that I have respected less - ever - and there are a lot of candidates I have run against," Shays told the paper.
Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. quickly put out a statement for party unity.
"He's determined to go out in a ball of flames, and he's sure doing that," McMahon's communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said of Shays' remarks. "It's just sad to see a career end like that."
During the debates, McMahon dismissed Shays as a "career politician" lacking the know-how and experience to turn around the economy and create jobs.
"You can't really appreciate what is going on with the middle class or with our businesses unless you have put your own capital at risk, unless you've had to make payroll, unless you've been bankrupt as I was and had to come back," McMahon said this month.
Like Simmons did in 2010, Shays attacks McMahon's business credentials by invoking the raucous moments of past WWE shows. He compares her to Hugh Hefner.
He angrily points out how McMahon as WWE executive also gave more than $20,000 during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic strategist Rahm Emanuel.
Both Shays and Simmons were top targets in those years for unseating.
"She gave tens of thousands of dollars ... so that they could elect Nancy Pelosi speaker, and that resulted in Rob Simmons losing by just 83 votes," Shays said. "And then she did the same thing in 2008 and I lost the election."
Murtaugh said Thursday that McMahon contributed those funds because of her relationship at the time with Emanuel's brother, Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood agent who has done work for WWE.
Ari Emanuel asked McMahon to help his brother, an Illinois congressman. "So as a favor to her friend, Ari, she did that," Murtaugh said.
He also pointed out that McMahon gave thousands of dollars to Shays' re-election campaigns.
State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose father, the late Stewart McKinney, was succeeded in office by Shays, said it would be a mistake to write off Shays before Aug. 14.
"August primaries are as unpredictable as anything in politics," McKinney said. "Turnout is predictably going to be very low. And turnout can be the enemy of the favorite and the friend of the underdog. Because if you get your people out to vote - that's all that matters."