The Washington Post

Shays jumps in Senate race: another GOP dilemma?

Chris Shays has announced that he will run for Senate in Connecticut in 2012, creating what may turn out to be a familiar situation in the state’s GOP primary.

The former congressman announced his decision in an interview with Hearst Newspapers, and he joins a race that already includes a trio of Democrats and is likely to include at least one familiar Republican — former wrestling executive Linda McMahon.

In fact, the entrance of Shays makes the Republican primary look a lot like it did in 2010, when McMahon and her tens of millions in self-funding faced off against another moderate former congressman.

Many saw the GOP establishment as tacitly backing McMahon in that primary, before she went on to lose by double digits in the general election

So how does the GOP establishment handle this one?

McMahon has not officially announced her plans, but she has said she is leaning strongly toward running again and will decide by the end of September.

In 2010 She easily dispatched an oddly run and badly outgunned campaign by former congressman Rob Simmons last year.

For a time McMahon the general election race against a pretty well-regarded Democratic nominee, now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal, appeared close. But she lost the general election by 12 points, despite spending $50 million of her own money — pretty disappointing for Republicans. In the end, her personal unfavorable rating cracked 50 percent — very high for a non-incumbent — and Blumenthal’s lead widened down the stretch.

In the end, many saw McMahon as a flawed candidate with as much personal baggage as personal wealth.

“I think they will be much more hesitant to endorse her this time around, no matter how hard she tries to rehab her image,” said one strategist involved in the 2010 race.

When you combine the 2010 result with the many other opportunities that are out there for the GOP this cycle, it’s easy to see why Connecticut wouldn’t be a top priority next year. At the same time, if there is anybody who could put the state in play, it might be Shays. The congressman won several tough races in a district that has consistently gone Democratic in presidential elections, before losing his seat in 2008.

And perhaps even more than Simmons, Shays could pick off Democratic and left-leaning independents. Shays favors abortion rights and also sides with the left on such issues as gun control, gay rights and campaign finance reform.

All of those things, of course, make it much more difficult for him to survive a GOP primary and for the establishment to rally behind him. It’s a Catch-22; Shays leans so far left that he may need some establishment help to win, but he also leans too far left to get that support in this kind of tea party environment.

The GOP establishment — given what happened in a few primaries in 2010 — will shy away from favoring any more moderate candidates. And that goes double for endorsing Shays, who was one of the most left-leaning Republicans in Congress even before most of the more moderate Northeastern Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008.

Also, guiding Shays to victory, even if he wins the primary without any help, would likely take a significant investment from the national GOP in a very expensive state.

If McMahon were to win the primary, however, the GOP doesn’t have to spend any money and, as in 2010, may actually force Democrats to spend some of their money.

With so many other races on the map, the resources game is key, and making Connecticut more expensive for Democrats may be a better option than making it more winnable for Republicans.

But if Shays is showing himself to be competitive with the likes of Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), it may not be so easy for Republicans to dismiss the race.Murphy is the early favorite in the Democratic primary. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is not seeking reelection.


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Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.


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