The two frontrunners in the race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate shook hands before the cameras were turned on, but that’s where the congeniality ended. After their opening statements, neither candidate was shy about sparring with each other Sunday morning during their debate on WFSB’s Face the State with Dennis House.
By the luck of the draw, former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays and former wrestling executive Linda McMahon were seated next to each other for the hour-long discussion. It was the second time in the last few days that the two were seated next to each other during a debate.
With Shays a percentage point away from Democratic frontrunner Chris Murphy in the latest poll, electability has become a focal point for the Republicans who haven’t held the seat in 30 years. In 2010, McMahon lost to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal by 12 percentage points.
“The candidate who ran last time for the Senate lost by 12 percent, and now she’s down 15 percent,” Shays said referring to McMahon. “First we have to get someone elected then we have to have someone who has the experience to know what to do.”
But McMahon still believes she’s the right woman for the job.
“I think the people of Connecticut are not going to send a professional politician back to Washington who helped create the mess we’re in,” McMahon said. “We need job creators to go to Washington.”
Brian K. Hill, a Hartford attorney, doesn’t believe Shays or McMahon can get elected.
“Quite frankly, nominating Linda or Chris is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Hill said. “It doesn’t matter what order you put them in, the ship is going down. We need to have a candidate like myself who can navigate around that iceberg ‘Obama.’”
Peter Lumaj, of Fairfield, agreed that neither Shays or McMahon will help a Republican candidate get elected in November.
“When you get an empty suit like Linda McMahon to run for this position who stands for nothing, her policies are completely confusing,” he said. “Then you’ve got Chris Shays who gets elected congressman and stays there for 20 years and betrays the Republican principles.”
Lumaj contends he’s the only conservative in the race.
Kie Westby, the soft-spoken attorney from Southbury, said when he travels the state he hears that people want someone dedicated to public service to be elected. Westby, who served in the Marine Corps Reserves for 24 years, said he wants to restore integrity.
“We need people who are willing to compromise, but we need people who are going to stand firm on principle,” Westby said.
Aside from electability and the ability to compromise, the candidates tackled immigration reform when they were asked if they could envision any path to legal citizenship for those already in the country illegally.
“Those who have come here illegally need to get to the back of the line,” McMahon said. “They should not be given amnesty, however, I think we can expand our visa program to allow more temporary workers.”
In addition to securing the borders, Shays said he would create a “blue” card system which would allow illegal immigrants to work and pay taxes, but never receive citizenship. He would also make English the official language.
Hill said he is in favor of a guest worker program. And for those already here illegally, Hill said he would support Shays’ “blue” card system.
Lumaj, who immigrated to the United States from Albania, said he doesn’t like the idea of splitting up families who already are here. He said they can offer “withholding of deportation, which allows them to stay over here and pay taxes.” But as someone who legally immigrated to the United States, he said he doesn’t support giving them amnesty, which would allow them to eventually be citizens.
Westby said there needs to be a reasonable path to citizenship, but if people are here illegally they need to go to the back of the line or leave the country.
“No one should profit from their wrongdoing,” Westby said.
In the lightning round, the candidates were asked if they ever smoked marijuana. None of them had. They also were asked whom they voted for in 2010.
Shays said he didn’t vote in Connecticut in 2010 because he lived in Maryland at the time; McMahon said she believed in the “sanctity of the ballot” and didn’t provide a specific answer; Westby said he voted for McMahon; Lumaj said he voted in New York City; and Hill, who was write-in candidate in 2010, said he voted for himself.