Almost certainly my favorite thing that has happened recently in politics is the comeback Rob Simmons is enjoying – after dropping out of the U.S. Senate race.
Previously, Simmons resembled nothing so much as a boulder rolling off a cliff. Last year, he was the presumptive nominee, and polls showed him close to even leading a wounded Sen. Chris Dodd. His primary challengers seemed like a bunch of nobodies: a businessman with strong ties to the Iraq War and the Bush administration, an eccentric libertarian who admitted that he rarely ever voted, and Linda McMahon: a wrestling executive with almost no political experience.
But then McMahon unleashed her most potent weapon: her millions of dollars. Rob Simmons didn’t stand a chance. Republican delegates started drifting, and the Simmons campaign turned nasty. Their campaign’s reaction to McMahon moved from the rather mildly titled “Simmons Statement on McMahon’s Democrat Donations” in October of 2009 to “Whopper of the Day!” and “Linda McMahon’s Many Myths” in December and January.
Her rise seemed so impossible to them: after all, on paper, Simmons was by far the stronger candidate than the obviously flawed McMahon. It made no sense, and the mentality seems to have been that if they just exposed those flaws often enough, they’d win. The constant vitriol coming out of their camp began to strongly remind me of the 2006 Lieberman primary campaign, which sneered at Ned Lamont in almost every press release.
Unfortunately for them, as it was for Lieberman, the constant attacks didn’t work. Simmons found himself trounced at the convention, and polls suggested he was likely to lose a primary. There are a couple of theories about why: I personally believe a lethal combination of money, geography, personality, GOP factionalism and the peculiar political circumstances of this year did Simmons in. That doesn’t matter—he lost, and fairly decisively. Simmons briefly flirted with carrying the fight to a primary, but bowed out instead.
Now that he’s out, Republicans are slowly coming to realize what they’ve done. Linda McMahon is a ticking time bomb, and beyond a certain point voters do not seem interested in having her as their senator. Richard Blumenthal’s Vietnam “misstatements” seemed to hand Republicans a gift; but faced with a choice between a damaged and suspect Blumenthal and Linda McMahon, polls showed voters sticking with the devil they knew. McMahon couldn’t break through.
Hence the Simmons comeback, such as it is. National Republican voices like Ann Coulter are begging Simmons to get back in the race, as the only hope of defeating Blumenthal. Former Simmons supporter State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, is throwing his lot in with the quixotic Schiff campaign rather than back McMahon. Simmons’s numbers against McMahon in August’s phantom primary are improving. Simmons seems flattered, but he still insists that he isn’t going to reverse his decision.
That’s smart. Right now Simmons has become an abstraction to voters and pundits again, instead of a flesh-and-blood candidate. People like Rob Simmons again because he isn’t Linda McMahon.
But that analysis hides Simmons’s flaws. Of all the candidates, he alone has a congressional record, and there is plenty to attack him over there. Simmons’s most problematic vote, even now, is the one he cast in favor of the Iraq War. Simmons is (perhaps unfairly) a reminder of the tumultuous Bush years, a time few Connecticut voters pine for. Also, in a year where political “outsiders” seem to be what voters want, Simmons’ Washington experience makes Blumenthal look like a fresh face by comparison.
Worse, Simmons could never really find his voice in this campaign. Who, voters might ask, is Rob Simmons? Is he the principled, tormented, fiery moderate they vaguely remember from years ago? Or is he the rightward-drifting candidate who last year carried a tea bag around to show solidarity with the rancid Tea Party movement? Is he someone else altogether?
Lastly, many Republicans never warmed to him, for many reasons. Simmons was always the kind of person who could do well in the strange, sprawling 2nd Congressional District, but the rest of the state is different. He rubbed many Republicans the wrong way. Combine that antipathy with difficulty raising money and a less-than-exciting campaign, and it’s easy to speculate that for some GOP delegates the strongest argument for Linda McMahon may have been that she wasn’t Rob Simmons.
Simmons should enjoy his brief renaissance. A lot of his warnings about McMahon are likely to come true, and if she does go on to lose to Blumenthal he’ll be seen as someone who saw it coming well in advance. It’s not a bad position to be in, and maybe it’ll give him a chance to just be Rob Simmons again.
Chris Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.