Near the entrance to the NBC studios in West Hartford, former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays told reporters he will continue to attack Linda McMahon and the business she built even if it costs him the election.
The two are vying in an Aug. 14 primary for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman. The two candidates took turns facing reporters after the debate.
To hear Shays describe the debate and the race was to listen to an old-school politician trying to make peace with the cold realities of a new political era. An era in which the rules have changed about where money comes from in campaigns, or who has to answer questions from whom.
“The point is I’m not going to be silent about that anymore than I would be silent about [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid not bringing out a budget,” Shays told reporters. “ I’ve got the guts to confront her even if it means I don’t win this election.”
Before the press scrum even started Shays admitted it may be the last time he would be in the center of a group of reporters pointing microphones in his direction..
“It may be the last time, and I think that would be a loss for the state,” Shays told reporters.
Shays, who served in Congress for 21 years before he was defeated by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes in 2008, decried how the rules of politics have changed in ways that allow candidates to bypass editorial boards and the media in general. He was referring to McMahon’s decision not to meet with editorial boards prior to the primary.
Shays asked the media to look at his economic plan and compare it to Linda McMahon’s economic plan.
“If she eliminates write-offs then why did she leave the tax rate at 35 and at 33 and at 38?” Shays said.
A reporter pointed out that voters would not be doing a side-by-side comparison of their economic plans as Shays suggested.
“Oh, geez, don’t say that to me,” Shays said with a hand over his heart.
But Shays seems to have been around politics long enough to know the odds are stacked against him. The latest polls show McMahon 29 points ahead of him and he doesn’t have enough money left in his campaign coffers to produce and run television ads.
“In the end, the polls have her ahead of me and I believe folks will want to vote for me,” he said. “I believe her support is paper thin.”
Unlike former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who challenged McMahon in 2010, Shays decided to stay and fight in the primary even though he didn’t receive the party’s endorsement at the Republican convention in May. Prior to the 2010 primary Simmons’ main line of attack revolved around how McMahon made her millions—building a professional wrestling organization.
Shays said McMahon can’t talk about job creation without talking about her job.
“Forty-one people died before the age of 50,” Shays said about the wrestlers, who are independent contractors, and not employees, according to the WWE.
“Her record was running the WWE when Vince McMahon her husband pulls down his pants and makes someone kiss it. Has somebody literally strip in front of adults and kids,” Shays said. “That stuns me.”
McMahon deflected Shays’ attacks of the WWE several times during the hour-long debate.
McMahon said Shays always gets caught up in the “Hollywood scripting” of the WWE.
“What we don’t have enough of in Washington are business people,” McMahon said.
Facing the reality that things have changed, Shays said he never declined to debate his opponent because “that’s the process and I honor it and I respect it.”
Shays was also stunned with McMahon’s decision not to meet with editorial boards. He said when former three-term U.S. Rep. Gary Franks did that back in the 1990s “he got chopped into little pieces.” (Franks did win those elections.)
But newspaper editorial boards have become less influential because the Internet has given a printing press to the masses. McMahon, who has contributed about $8 million of her own money to her campaign this year, has been able to purchase television commercials, advertisements, and other media to get her message across.
Shays said he’s not asking anyone to ignore the reality that McMahon can buy lots of advertisements. He’s just asking voters to see through it, he said.
“What I’m telling voters to do is don’t drink her Kool-Aid,” Shays said.
For her part, McMahon said voters care about jobs and the economy. McMahon stuck firmly to her talking points in the post-debate spin zone, declining to release her 2010 tax returns as a substitute for her unfinished 2011 taxes. Pushed on whether her taxes would include any off-shore tax havens, McMahon said she knows that answer and will release her tax return as soon as it’s done.
Pressed further, McMahon said, “we keep our money here in this country.”
As a largely self-financed candidate, McMahon painted herself as someone who will be responsible only to the voters of the state.
“I have not taken any PAC money or special interest money,” McMahon told reporters. “I am simply there to do a job. I’m not looking for a career. I’m not looking for fame or fortune. I’m running for the United States Senate because I believe I can make a difference and want an opportunity to do that.”
Reporters asked why she won’t agree to sell that point at more debates.
“We’ve had plenty of debates. I think we’ve had five forums and two debates,” McMahon said. “I’m out everyday talking to the people of Connecticut.”
Because she’s largely self-funding her own campaign, McMahon has the luxury of going out on the campaign trail every day and talking to voters.
It’s a luxury, her likely Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, doesn’t have. Murphy, who spent most of his time representing the 5th Congressional District, said he didn’t really dedicate as much time in the early stages of the campaign to raising money because he was focused on doing his job. But with the election on the horizon Murphy said he’s switched gears and is spending about five hours on the phone every day making fundraising calls to make sure he’s competitive in November.
As McMahon’s spokesman Tim Murtaugh was cutting off the press conference, a reporter asked “do you need reporters anymore?”
McMahon didn’t answer. She just smiled as she turned and headed into the elevator.