The race for Joe Lieberman’s U.S Senate seat keeps getting more crowded. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays (R) is poised to enter the race according to Roll Call, and a recent Frank Luntz poll suggests he would start off running neck-and-neck with Democratic front-runner U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy (D).
It seems like a golden opportunity for Shays, who left both electoral politics and the state after his narrow 2008 loss to Jim Himes. Big-name (for Connecticut) Republicans are enthusiastic about his candidacy, and there are already a few editorials out there promoting his potential candidacy as a victory for moderation and common sense. Shays has a priceless reputation as a moderate Republican, one of a dying breed, and could absolutely appeal to voters sick of the usual partisan gridlock. If the far more partisan Murphy wins the Democratic nomination, the contrast could be striking.
If he does jump in he’ll probably face 2010 runner-up Linda McMahon, who also is preparing to enter the race. He could potentially give those Republicans who feel queasy about another McMahon candidacy a competent, electable and far more knowledgeable alternative to back. He won’t have McMahon’s vast wealth to draw upon, but he’ll likely be able to raise respectable amounts of money through national GOP connections. He’s also an opportunity for Republicans to correct what some are now seeing as 2010’s major mistake: backing the inexperienced McMahon over former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons.
It won’t be a cake-walk for Shays, though; there are some major problems and questions to consider. There’s a year until the 2012 primary, true, but is that really enough time for this race? Democrats have been running (and fundraising) since Sen. Joe Lieberman announced he would be retiring back in January, meaning Shays will have to scramble to raise the cash he’d need to compete. Linda McMahon’s wealth means she doesn’t have this problem, and if 2010 is any indication she’ll be more than willing to spend plenty of her own money on her campaign. This is part of what did in Simmons during the 2010 primary.
Money aside, Shays doesn’t fit the profile of candidates who enthuse hardcore Republican primary voters these days. In other words, he’s a relatively liberal Republican in a party where the right wing increasingly calls the shots; otherwise known to Tea Party types as a RINO (Republican In Name Only. SEE: Jodi Rell). Some of the more conservative commentators out there don’t seem all that hot on Shays’ candidacy, either. Of course, McMahon might be just as moderate as Shays; she was so loathe to take any substantive positions in 2010 that it’s very hard to tell.
Shays also suffers from the same problem that Simmons did (and still does): he reminds voters of a long decade of strife that they’d probably rather forget. Shays’ 2004 and 2006 races turned on the issue of the Iraq War, which Shays defended, and the 2008 race eventually became about the heart-stopping economic crash. There’s something about a Shays candidacy, especially considering his low political profile since, that speaks more to the past than the future.
Speaking of, where has Shays been for all this time? Not in Connecticut, as it turns out; he’s been living in Maryland, keeping busy with government panels and corporate boards. Both of those things may hurt him. Ask former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson — who lost in 2000 to Rob Simmons in part because of allegations that he’d moved out of his rather touchy district — how well moving somewhere more interesting goes over. Plus, serving on corporate boards, living in the D.C. area and co-chairing a committee authorized by Congress suggests that Shays is a Washington insider at a time when voters are fed up with the capital and its culture.
Lastly, Shays made headlines for somewhat odd behavior during the 2008 race, most notably for the crashing of a Himes press conference at the broken Congress Street bridge in Bridgeport to glower at his opponent (it’s worth noting that the bridge, which Himes attacked Shays over, still isn’t fixed). It’s not terribly surprising considering the pressure he was under, but he’ll have to be at the top of his game to take on McMahon and then Democratic nominee.
This isn’t to say that Senator Shays is impossible. His time in Congress was three years ago, and the last few elections have ably demonstrated how quickly voters can forget the recent past. Being out of this particular government during the past three years doesn’t hurt, either. McMahon is a wealthy but flawed candidate who couldn’t win during the strongest Republican year since 1994, and the other GOP candidates considering a run aren’t necessarily an impressive or viable bunch (with the possible exception of Simmons, but that’s another column). The Democratic front-runners, Murphy and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, are both vulnerable. Murphy would have to defend a liberal record to moderates, and Bysiewicz is weighed down by a flawed 2010 gubernatorial election and a fishy database her office kept. Shays has some issues to overcome, it’s true. But if he plays his cards right, he could be just the kind of independent voice voters want.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.