Voters have been treated to a clash of titans in the U.S. Senate primary race — Connecticut's last U.S. House Republican vs. an enormously successful businesswoman with a compelling life story.
The Courant endorses Christopher Shays in the Aug. 14 Republican primary for his greater grasp of the issues, learned from two decades in Washington. But his rival is a close second for her moxie, magnetism and leadership skills.
Why Mr. Shays?
Mr. Shays, 66, of Bridgeport, has a long public-service resume representing the 4th Congressional District from 1987 until he lost to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008. Mr. Shays was a centrist on social issues and a fiscal hawk who would cross the aisle when needed — rarely seen in this paralyzed Congress.
Perhaps his finest hour was the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, the House version of the better-known McCain-Feingold law, which banned unregulated soft money until the Supreme Court gutted it in the 2010 Citizens United ruling.
His service has given him a vast store of policy knowledge. After his defeat, he put his expertise to use as co-chairman of a commission created by Congress to look into contracting waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Where he disappoints, however, is his capriciousness. He's backtracked on many issues, from a timeline for getting troops out of Iraq (as well as getting into the Iraq war in the first place), to privatizing part of Social Security (he once supported it, now doesn't). He voted on a moratorium on offshore drilling, then reversed that position. He opposes banning assault weapons, though he co-sponsored a bill on a ban.
Spending decades in Washington isn't always a strength. Nevertheless, he's more experienced in the tough arena of Congress and, even if not always easy to predict, as an exemplar of Connecticut's more moderate brand of Republicanism, he would represent the state well.
Why Not Ms. McMahon?
Ms. McMahon, 63, of Greenwich, is astute, resolute and charming, a formidable combination when backed with a personal fortune. She earned the party's endorsement for Senate this year, the nomination in 2010 and the backing of many state GOP leaders not merely because of her wealth but because of her savvy and brains.
Those who suggest that her Senate races have been vanity trips underestimate this determined, unflappable candidate. Her 2010 Republican rival, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, was so undone by her that he all but dropped out of the race in its last months. She's driven Mr. Shays to exasperated name-calling, but "clueless" and "amateur" she is not.
She plays to the Republican base with her success story and the hope that she could help turn around the nation's dreary economy. Yes, "professional" wrestling is schlocky, sometimes risque entertainment. But taking a silly show from coliseums to TV deals and the New York Stock Exchange should no more disqualify her for political office than being a comedian or actor would.
On social issues, she is in the moderate mold of Sens. Susan Collins and soon-to-retire Olympia Snowe — she's pro-choice (but opposes partial-birth abortions), for example. On fiscal issues, she's conservative, touting simplistic tax and spending cuts as the centerpiece of her campaign and overpromising tax savings under her plan.
But less is known about her politics than her opponent's — in part because she's shied away from editorial boards and stayed strictly on message in the few debates she's done. Such a take-no-risks strategy has its advantages in a primary, but doesn't serve the public well. In the fall general election, Ms. McMahon will have to explain herself more fully to a wider audience on such issues as Social Security and Medicare. And on whether she'd be an independent Republican in the Connecticut tradition.