Politics

08.13.12

Shays’s Rebellion: The Last Yankee Republican Fights For His Political Life

A popular Republican faces a thumping in the Republican primary Tuesday. The Daily Beast’s John Avlon talks to former Rep. Chris Shays about what’s changed.

Chris Shays can’t believe this is happening. How does a longtime Newt Gingrich congressional ally who co-authored 1994’s Contract with America, helped achieve a balanced budget, and backed the Bush-era War on Terror to the hilt get called a Republican In Name Only?

Tuesday is primary day in Connecticut and polls show Shays, a popular Connecticut Republican who served six terms in the House, losing a senate bid in the state by more than 20 points to Linda McMahon, who helped build the World Wrestling Entertainment empire with her husband Vince. McMahon, who’s never held office, lost the 2010 senate race despite the Tea Party tide and spending more than $40 million of her own fortune.

This year, she’s set to spend a reported $65 million.

Shays has tried to combat that onslaught with a $1.5 million budget and the backing of virtually every major Connecticut newspaper.

“Linda McMahon wouldn't even get to first base if she didn't have 65 million to spend. I mean that’s the bottom line,” says Shays. “You clearly can buy a convention, but it’s harder to buy a primary and much harder to buy the general election. And that's why she's going to lose the general election.”

The McMahon campaign boasts the support of state party leaders and won the GOP convention vote earlier this summer. But she has continued a troubling trend of Republican candidates—particularly self-funded ones—who have refused to meet with local editorial boards, answer reporters’ questions or debate their opponent. It is a cynical strategy that protects candidates from policy specifics, and their consultants don’t care as long as they’re getting paid.

Fitting the spectacle of professional wrestling—a business the McMahons reinvigorated by admitting that it’s a fixed carny show—her approach to politics is all bread and circuses, an investment in distraction. But it is a far cry from the successful Northeast Republican model that once routinely produced Senate giants like Margaret Chase Smith, Prescott Bush, and Warren Rudman and more recently propelled Scott Brown to an upset special-election victory in Massachusetts.

“Linda McMahon wouldn't even get to first base if she didn't have 65 million to spend. I mean that’s the bottom line,” says Shays.

“I'm a Yankee Republican,” explains Shays. “It’s a commitment to common sense, not ideology ... I've always been a strong fiscal conservative, strong on defense, strong on immigration. I'm a moderate Republican because I'm pro-choice. I'm for stem-cell research. I'm for interacting with and finding Democrats who will be willing to co‑sponsor legislation that I write. But a Republican is not and should never be defined as someone who's either pro-choice or pro-life. That's a huge mistake. Barry Goldwater would never understand the Republican Party of today. Barry Goldwater's wife was head of Planned Parenthood in Arizona.”

“The problem with my Republican Party today is that when it focuses on the social issues you can end up with someone like Tom DeLay who was a social conservative but a big spender, someone who was more than willing to waste money,” says Shays. “And while Rome is burning, we were eating grapes … We need to get back to the basics. So if I win this race, I'm talking about economic growth, I'm talking about downsizing the government, I'm talking about using our energy, I'm talking about simplifying our tax code, and, and, and focusing on reevaluating regulations. That to me is about as Republican as you can get.”

Given Shays’s critique of over-spending during the Bush years and his demonstrated record of fiscal conservatism, the question is: why hasn’t he been backed by the kind of Tea Party activists who say they support just those views? The obvious answer—beyond blind outsider enthusiasm—is Shays's record of moderation on social issues, which is a good fit for the state but not for activists in an increasingly polarized (and shrinking) state party.

Shays voted with Republicans 77 percent of the time while in Congress, but that voting record earned him fifth place on Human Events’ 2005 list of RINOs, which listed his sins this way: “He led the House fight for McCain-Feingold campaign finance ‘reform.’ He’s also prone to back environmental causes, gun control, and abortion rights.” When he lost his seat as the last Connecticut Congressional Republican in 2008, Rush Limbaugh denounced him for saying Republicans need to reach out beyond their base. But Shays remains committed to the Yankee Republican tradition, despite his many conservative critics and the blue tide sweeping through his state in response to the rightward march of the GOP.

“Linda McMahon is clearly not a fiscal conservative, which I am,” says Shays with flinty frustration. “Fiscal conservatives do not spend $65 million so recklessly … and she's not a social conservative 'cause there's no way, no way whatsoever, that a social conservative would have allowed the kind of stuff that went on in World Wrestling when she ran it.”

Despite the polls, Shays remains defiantly hopeful, pointing to the fact that his record is much more in line with the traditional Connecticut Republican base and that in a mid-August primary, only about 20 percent of registered Republicans are likely to turn out to vote. “Her support is broader than I would like, but it's paper-thin,” Shays says. “I'm hoping that there will be a group of people who will say ‘you know what, we don't like so much money in politics, I have a chance to prove that I don't like it by voting against someone who's literally trying to buy an election.’ I hope there'll be people who will say, ‘if Chris Shays wins this election, this is going be a Scott Brown race.’

“So if I win this primary, I will not be surprised. Evidently, everybody else will, but I won't be.”