Simmons versus the checkbook

Rob Simmons, the former 2nd District congressman and current candidate for U.S. Senate, wants to provide delegates to next month's state Republican convention a little history lesson. In particular, Simmons wants delegates to recall the 1992 election; the last time the party had a primary battle to choose a Senate candidate.

That year a California jury acquitted four Los Angelis police officers in the beating of Rodney King, setting off race riots in the City of Angels. Johnny Carson hosted his last "Tonight Show."

Unemployment stood at 7.5 percent (ah, the good old days). And for the first time a basic, text-only Internet Web browser was made available to the public.

But what Simmons wants fellow Republicans to think about is something most people have long forgotten - the GOP Senate primary between then treasurer and former state representative Chris Burnham and businessman Brook Johnson, who had no prior political experience.

In Simmons' opinion, the party should have backed Burnham, who was building a good reputation for his work as treasurer and was working from within the political system. Instead, Johnson easily won the primary. Articles from the time suggest many in the Republican leadership felt Johnson's business success and a willingness to spend his own money would make him a stronger candidate against Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, then seeking a third term.

Simmons also said Burnham was too much the gentleman and by refusing to attack Johnson, left it to the Democrats to do so after the primary. Indeed, Dodd scored points by noting Johnson's successful manufacturing business was creating jobs for Canadians, not Americans, since it was located north of the border.

Dodd easily won re-election.

Simmons is trying to make the argument that nominating his top opponent, former professional wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, would repeat the same mistake. He hopes to persuade enough delegates to win a convincing nomination victory at the May 21-22, giving him a big bounce heading into what appears to be a certain primary against McMahon and potentially including investor Peter Schiff, another businessman turned politician.

Unlike Burnham, Simmons has gone negative, repeatedly bringing up McMahon's leadership of the WWE, including the allegations of steroid use, the premature deaths of many past wrestlers, and the crude, violent and exploitive nature of the business that made her rich. Unfortunately for him, Simmons has had to do so using press releases and e-mail bulletins, not having the money to deliver that message in TV advertisements. But he warns that the Democrats and their likely nominee, Attorney General Richard Blumethal, won't hesitate to do so, particularly if the race gets tight. On that point, he's spot on.

Simmons also makes the argument that with him as the candidate there will be no surprises. Having run in several elections and served as state business advocate, his record is well vetted, said Simmons. With McMahon, he argues, you can almost guarantee more unpleasant surprises.

But 2010 is not 1992.

Back then pundits were amazed that Johnson spent $1.9 million of his own money trying to get elected. It seems almost quaint. McMahon has spent about $14 million so far to take the lead in the polls and said she is ready to spend $50 million of her fortune to win the election.

Given the surliness of the electorate and the disdain for most career politicians, an outsider such as McMahon who vows to shake up Washington may be just what many voters want.

And the reality is, Burnham would probably not have defeated Dodd in 1992 either, a year when Democrat Bill Clinton won election as president at the top of the ticket. Some think Blumenthal is an equally sure bet. I was among them, but no longer. He is still the heavy favorite, certainly, but Blumenthal is off to a stumbling start and given the volatility of the current political process, perhaps anything is possible.

During a recent meeting with the Editorial Board, Simmons said the race for the Republican nomination is about the very viability of the election process. If McMahon, with no political experience, who often did not bother to vote, whose company spread money to Democrats as well as Republicans, can defeat a former congressman, defense intelligence expert, party loyalist, and bronze star military veteran - Simmons - "then it's all about the checkbook and nothing else," he said.

That may be a conclusion many of the Republicans supporting McMahon have already reached.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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