No More Mr. Nice Guy
Senate candidate Chris Shays has tried to make nice with the Tea Party in Connecticut, but is it enough to beat Linda McMahon for the Republican nomination?
Photograph by David Weigel.
DANBURY, Conn.—The New Milford Patriots’ fourth annual Tax Day Tea Party took place on April 15, near a flag-bedecked gazebo in the center of town. Former Republican congressman and current U.S. Senate candidate Chris Shays found the stage and grabbed a microphone.
“Thank you for loving your country!” said Shays. He spotted a Gadsden flag, the semi-official banner of the Tea Party, and rubbed the fabric. “This is our heritage,” said Shays. He turned and walked toward the modern American flag, and repeated the laying-on of hands. “This is our heritage, it’s our present, it’s our future.”
Many hacks and strategists have struggled to define the “Tea Party candidate.” Almost no definition is broad enough to cover Chris Shays—elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1974, moved up to Congress in 1987, losing his seat in the 2008 Obama wave. He was one of the GOP’s trustier pro-choice votes. He sponsored campaign finance reform legislation. Anybody holding a vote on gun control? Better call Chris.
In the past year, though, since announcing his comeback bid, Shays has tried to hotwire a connection to the new Republican Party. The sponsor of a health care reform bill that demanded state-by-state insurance mandates now pledges to repeal Obamacare. In New Milford, Shays apologized for his last vote to raise taxes, in 1991. “I voted for a luxury tax,” he sighed, “and all I did was put boat manufacturers out of work.”
He’s slowly won over some critics. “I got the impression that he learned from his mistakes,” said Al Brant, organizer of the New Milford group. To prove it, all Shays has to do is win the Republican primary on Tuesday
It’s tough to find people who think he can. The odds-on favorite to win the nomination here is Linda McMahon, co-founder (with her husband, Vince) of World Wrestling Entertainment, net worth around $232 million, the 2010 Republican candidate, spender of more than $62 million on her two campaigns. McMahon beat Shays at the state GOP convention, and the last poll of the race gives her a 68-20 lead on the Last Republican Moderate.
“If I win this election, I won’t be surprised,” said Shays on Friday. “If I lose this election, I won’t be surprised, because it all depends on who votes. Mrs. McMahon has broader support, and [it’s as] thin as paper.”
I caught up with Shays on Friday at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield. He was scheduled to talk to retirees at 10 a.m. He arrived early to be introduced to a Korean War veteran named Archer Karnes.
“Thank you for your service,” said Shays.
“Why don’t you send me a check, then?” said Karnes.
Shays laughed; he could brag about his old constituent service if he wanted, but maybe this wasn’t the year for it. He worked a steadily filling synagogue of residents, most of them in wheelchairs, sometimes putting his hand on one chair as he took a knee and talked to two people. When the residents were assembled, he told them some decades-spanning anecdotes about the wise voters and statesmen he’d known. He accidentally referred to the prime minister of Israel as “President Netanyahu,” then apologized: “I keep thinking of him as Bibi.” He’d been to Israel 15 times.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.