(Updated with video) Despite her loss two years ago by more than 100,000 votes to a Democrat, Republicans again crowned former wrestling executive Linda McMahon as their nominee Friday evening after just one ballot.
McMahon, who spent $50 million of her personal fortune on the last race, has worked hard to improve her image among women voters and seems to be making in-roads with the Republican Party establishment. She received 60.4 percent of the vote at the end of the night. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays received about 32.2 percent of the vote, while Brian K. Hill, Peter Lumaj and Kie Westby didn’t receive the 15 percent they needed to primary.
When it was clear McMahon had the easily won the nomination, she told reporters she didn’t think people really got her message during the last race.
“What I found out was people really didn’t get to know me very well in the last campaign. So I’m spending a great deal of time now having smaller groups so they can ask me questions and learn what I stand for,” she said.
McMahon said she felt she was making significant progress this year with grassroots campaigning.
As the convention hall emptied and party officials recalculated the final numbers, McMahon decided not to wait for them to complete the task and instead grabbed a loose microphone on the floor to thank her supporters. She had already missed the 11 p.m. news cycle and her staff realized the microphones on the floor were still hot. She scrapped her prepared speech and urged the party to unite behind her candidacy. But the appeal to Shays to drop out will likely fall on deaf ears as his campaign is committed to a primary.
“It’s been 100 years since the first woman senator went to Washington,” McMahon said. “Connecticut, we’re tired of waiting.”
An unknown commodity two years ago, McMahon has become a household name with Republicans. Even though Shays held office for more than 20 years in the 4th Congressional District, he may not have been making enough friends in other parts of the state.
Kevin Fealy, a Republican delegate from Enfield who had a lively conservation with Shays on the convention floor, said he had concerns about Shays’ voting record on the 2nd Amendment.
“He espouses views over the 2nd Amendment that his Democratic opponent would champion,” Fealy said.
He said he understands government is a “necessary evil,” but once you let it creep in on one issue there’s bound to be other issues where you will allow the government to intrude.
“I am a rightwing conservative and if there are enough issues you don’t support, I can’t support you,” Fealy said.
But Shays argued he has always fared better with the general electorate than he has with the Republican establishment. And unlike McMahon, Shays barely trails Democratic nominee Chris Murphy in the polls. Should he win the primary on August 14, Shays said he’ll have “more money than I know what to do with.”
“This will be one of the top 10 competitive races in the country, if I win the primary,” he told reporters.
Asked what kind of primary race he expects from McMahon, Shays said he expects her to run the same race she ran two years ago.
“She’ll spend whatever it takes. Flood the mailboxes, flood the emails,” he said.
McMahon acknowledged her campaign sent out a lot of mail in the previous race but said they will be targeting their mail differently this time around.
“It’ll be a different campaign,” she said.
Moving forward, McMahon said she would be focusing her efforts on Murphy, but she said Murphy and Shays have similar voting records.
“Part of the pushback on voting records, I think, will be the same for both candidates,” she said.
Shays said McMahon has been campaigning with the delegates for two-and-a-half years, while he entered the race late. It’s been hard convincing delegates to swap their votes in his favor, he said.
“The most difficult conversations I’ve had are with people who said, ‘I committed last year,’ or ‘I committed before I knew you were in the race,’” he said. “I’ve said to them, ‘you know what you’re not married to her, you just go up and say ‘I’ve changed my mind I’m going to vote for the candidate I think can win.’”
State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Shays supporter, said it was always about qualifying to run a primary against McMahon.
“When Chris Shays announced he was running for Senate, he knew he announced late. He knew he was going to be the underdog. The goal was always to get to 15 percent for an August 14th primary,” he said.
When candidates run a clean primary it can actually help the party, McKinney said.
“My hope and my belief is my party is going to come out strong after August 14th,” he said.
But delegates for McMahon like former state Senator Louis DeLuca said Shays has had a few missteps by basically accusing delegates of being bought and paid for by McMahon.
“Even if you think that, you don’t say it as a candidate,” DeLuca said, referring to the WWE ticketgate story.