Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays concedes that he is “the underdog” on the Republican side in race for the U.S. Senate, but he likes his chances against a Democratic opponent in the general election next November.

“What is gratifying is that in the general election I’m in a statistical dead heat with the Democratic frontrunner and ahead of the other two candidates,” Shays said this weekend at a fundraiser in Brookfield.

A recent poll showed that Shays would lose to former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon of Greenwich, who lost the race in 2010 to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

According to the poll only 34 percent of Republicans see Shays in a favorable light, while 30 percent have a negative opinion of him. Those numbers pale in comparison to McMahon’s numbers with Republicans. Sixty-three percent of Republicans have a positive opinion of McMahon while 25 percent have an unfavorable opinion of her.

However, the poll, which was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic company, indicated that he would be the stronger candidate in the general election, where he trails U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy of Cheshire, the Democratic frontrunner, by only 43 to 39 percent.

The survey also showed that Shays ran ahead the other two Democratic candidates, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz of Middletown and state Rep. William Tong of Stamford.

“You look at the way that my wealthy opponent was so reckless,” Shays said of McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who spent $50 million last year.

“You have to ask yourself if she spent her own money so recklessly, how is she going to spend somebody else’s money,” he said in an interview.

“What we learned last year is that you can spend $50 million on a Senate race and lose by double digits,” former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons said. Simmons was considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination two years ago before McMahon entered the race and won the convention. He declined to wage a primary battle against McMahon, but kept his name on the ballot.

She defeated him at the convention and then handily won a three-way primary against Simmons and Peter Schiff, chief global strategist for Euro Pacific Capital.

“I’m convinced most Connecticut voters don’t think an election should be an auction,” said Shays, who was elected 11 times in the Fourth District. Shays served in the U.S. House for more than 21 years, the third longest tenure in Connecticut history.
“She has a Sarah Palin-like following,” Brookfield Republican Town Committee Secretary Matt Grimes said of McMahon. “The base loves her. The independents don’t like her.”

“Chris Shays has the experience to be a U.S. Senator and he brings in the unaffiliated voters, which are crucial to winning an election,” Grimes said. He noted that Shays helped write a major campaign finance reform law, is considered a deficit hawk, and has extensive foreign policy experience.

Brookfield Republican Town Committee Chairman Marty Flynn said he believes McMahon needs to have more contact with local party officials. He said that she was the only candidate on the ballot last year that didn’t attend either of the major social events that the Brookfield GOP held during the campaign season.

Flynn said she also polls poorly among female voters, some have speculated it’s because of the sex and violence that is associated with WWE.

“Females should be a source of strength for her, but they obviously are not” Simmons said, noting that one poll last year indicated that McMahon had a 61 percent unfavorable rating with women voters.

“You can spend another $50 million and you’re not going to overcome those numbers,” he said.

Flynn said he believes Shays would be the strongest candidate in the general election out of a Republican field that includes McMahon, attorney Brian K. Hill of Windsor and Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy.

After recently completing his work in Washington as co-chairman on the Commission on Wartime Contracting, Shays, who narrowly lost his re-election bid in 2008 to Democrat Jim Himes, moved back to Bridgeport and formally announced earlier this month that he was running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

He said that entering the race nine months after Murphy and Bysiewicz won’t be an obstacle since he already has opened a headquarters in Stratford, has begun hiring campaign staff members and has a “financial base” of supporters from his former congressional district.

“Come January, I think people will be pretty impressed with our operation,” Shays said.

Grimes said he believes winning the state convention next May will be crucial in determining Shays’ chances in the primary.

McMahon, who has been touring businesses across the state over the recent weeks, has endorsements from six former state GOP chairmen.

“Over the years, the Republican Party has shrunk and some moderate Republicans have shifted to unaffiliated,” Simmons said. He said that’s likely to be an obstacle that Shays, who had one of the most independent voting records among GOP congressmen, might face in the primary.

However, since Shays is considered to be a deficit hawk, he will have support from some of the Tea Party activists, Simmons opined.

“I find that the Tea Party people in my part of the state are very congenial to me and the traditional Republican values,” Simmons said.

Shays, who was the only remaining Republican congressman from New England when he lost three years ago, said “the issues that we will be confronting for the next decade are not social issues that tend to make some Republicans more moderate, it’s going to be the bread and butter issues.”

He said the “fiscal agenda” should focus on holding down the debt ceiling.

“The reason there was a concern about raising that ceiling this summer was because some people rightfully said I can’t keep voting for these deficit increases,” Shays said. “The message to the president was that he wasn’t going to have as easy at time increasing the debt,” he said. “I think that was an important lesson for Barack Obama to learn. I think that otherwise he would just keep blindly spending.”

Shays, a former vice chairman of the House Budget Committee said he supports re-establishing the Pay-As-You-Go budget controls that lapsed about a decade ago.

“We’re abdicating our responsibilities,” he said regarding the record budget deficit. “It’s the fault of the elected officials that don’t have the courage to do their job.”