Connecticut and the pitiful death knell of the GOP moderate

August 15, 2012

Updated at 9:39 a.m.

Moderate GOP Senate candidates have been taking a beating the last two election cycles.

And nowhere is that more the case than in Connecticut.

The 2010 and 2012 elections both featured open Senate seats in the Nutmeg State. In both elections, respected and moderate former GOP congressmen -- the kind of candidates Republicans arguably need in a blue-leaning state -- stepped forward.

And both got clobbered, thanks to the wealth of former WWE CEO Linda McMahon and the polarized political reality of the day.

Two years ago, the political career of former congressman Rob Simmons devolved into an odd saga. Drowned by millions of dollars of McMahon's wrestling fortune, Simmons lost the party's endorsement and dropped out, only to return later and suggest he might still be a candidate against McMahon in the primary. Kind of.

In fact, whether Simmons was or wasn't a candidate seemed to depend largely on what day it was. He wound up losing by more than 20 points.

"The debate Mr. Simmons seems to be having with himself over the status of his candidacy is also marring his image as a standup guy," the Hartford Courant declared at one point, in a sentence that pretty much says it all.

Things haven't been any better for former congressman Chris Shays in 2012.


Former congressman Chris Shays is likely to lose in today's Connecticut GOP Senate primary. (Bob Child/AP)

Shays was a longtime survivor in a top-targeted blue-leaning Connecticut House district who eventually succumbed in 2008 to a Democratic wave. After picking up the pieces from a scandal in which his campaign manager embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, Shays attempted what Simmons failed at, joining a 2012 race in which McMahon (who lost in the 2010 general election to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal) was again primed to spend tens of millions of dollars.

Shays struggled even more than Simmons to raise funds for his campaign and has not aired a single TV advertisement in the primary, which concluded Tuesday. And he lost by a truly stunning margin: 73 percent to 27 percent.

As the polls drifted more and more towards McMahon, Shays's campaign devolved into a series of "look-at-me" campaign gimmicks generally reserved for small-time candidates who have nothing else to get them noticed.

He has grown vulgar on the campaign trail, labeling McMahon's strategy "bulls**t" and saying people tell him "I want my f***ing country back." He ran a web video in which he attacked McMahon for also seeking the Independent Party ballot line (something that is standard practice in states where candidates can be endorsed by more than one party), and has said he will not support McMahon in the general election.

"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 said.

It's a marked contrast to the measured and respected statesman who, even if he wasn't the favorite of the conservative base, was at least allowing the GOP to hold a tough seat.

"To put it mildly, the use of profanity is a bit at odds with Mr. Shays’ staid image," wrote a local blogger for the Waterbury Republican-American. "As such, you can’t help but wonder if Mr. Shays ... is making a desperate, last-ditch attempt to fire primary voters up or if he is frustrated because he knows the end of his campaign is near."

In reality, it's probably a little of Column A and a little of Column B.

One Connecticut Republican consultant said Shays's decline is more sad than anything else.

"It’s more pitiful than something you would get pissed off about," the consultant said. "If he were trying to run for his old congressional seat right now, he wouldn’t be competitive."

And really, that's the point here. Shays ran into a political reality in which moderate Republicans pretty much can't win unless they are already in office. He survived all those years because he was the incumbent.

Yes, McMahon's fortune has had plenty to do with it, but the fact is that it's very hard for a non-incumbent moderate to raise enough money in the super PAC era no matter how much stature you had at one point. Look at Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin's Senate race, who despite his victory Tuesday struggled to raised funds.

There simply aren't outside groups devoted to electing moderates in primaries, and even those who might want to help an electable moderate in a state like Connecticut will be afraid to do so, for fear of irritating the conservative base.

Which means the ranks of moderates in the GOP are likely to decline even further in the future, as moderate incumbents lose and moderate candidates are unable to raise the funds to replace them in battleground seats.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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