Politics & Policy

The Doddering Old Party

Is there a Scott Brown hiding out in Connecticut?

Call him “Senator.” Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, beats his Republican opponents — Rob Simmons, Linda McMahon, and Peter Schiff — by 20 points in Rasmussen Reports’ latest poll. But some conservatives still think Blumenthal, who has never faced a serious challenge in his 27-year career, sports a glass jaw, and they’re looking for the prizefighter who can shatter it. Is there a Scott Brown hiding out in Connecticut?

If so, who? It’s not clear that a conservative can win the race and — more to the point — it’s not even obvious who the conservative in the race is.

Simmons, former representative of Connecticut’s second congressional district, is a classic New England moderate. He wants to suspend payroll taxes to stimulate the economy and to lower corporate taxes to spur growth. He pledges to withdraw government from the banking system, from the housing market, and from the automotive industry. Unfortunately, he was a high-rolling congressman. Last month, D. Dowd Muska, a contributor to the Waterbury Republican-American, lambasted Simmons for telling the New London Day in 2004, “I like to go out and deliver the money.”

Tea Partiers distrust his spendthrift ways. Bob MacGuffie, co-founder of Right Principles, a group that organizes conservative activists, says, “We’ve got problems with his congressional voting record. He voted with Planned Parenthood on partial-birth abortion. He opposed drilling in Alaska. He voted for McCain-Feingold and for the Medicare drug plan.” Still, MacGuffie adds, “We certainly believe in redemption.” Simmons is atoning. In October, he renounced his previous support of card-check and cap-and-trade.

Conservatives remain wary. “He cast some very bad votes which he has yet to fully explain,” cautions Tom Scott, a former state senator. In his defense, Simmons cites his time as state business advocate, during which he visited over 400 businesses. “I got an earful about energy costs, an earful about the costs of labor, an earful about problems with unionization. With the economy down, we can’t afford cap-and-trade and card-check,” he tells National Review.

Some conservatives are sympathetic: “He is more conservative than his voting record,” argues Joe Markley, a former state senator.

McMahon, former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, seems more conservative in many ways. She agrees with Simmons on some issues: On the economy, McMahon tells National Review, “I certainly think tax incentives for small businesses would be the way to go.” On health care, she supports reforming the tort laws, allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines, and encouraging small businesses to pool risk. But she parts with Simmons in breaking right on other issues: On abortion, for example, she favors parental notification and opposes partial-birth procedures.

But her core convictions remain a mystery to many observers. “You really don’t know where she stands on things,” says Rick Green, a columnist for the Hartford Courant. Take the Supreme Court. Asked if she would have voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, McMahon could only say, “In her full scheme of judgments, she showed me that she had let more of her personal background into her decisions. There were other jurists who had less of that kind of implication.” Not exactly stirring stuff.

Conservatives worry that she would come under the wrong influences in D.C. “As soon as she got to Washington, she’d go RINO in 30 seconds,” MacGuffie says. They wonder about the $15,000 she gave to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — then led by Rahm Emanuel — in 2006. McMahon defends her donations: “Ari Emanuel is CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, which represents WWE. I contributed to the campaigns of his brother Rahm. The donations were not politically motivated, and I’ve given more to Republicans than to Democrats.” (Never mind what a non-politically motivated political donation means.)

Worse for Tea Partiers, McMahon appointed former governor Lowell Weicker, who sired the state income tax, to the board of her company. “This guy did more damage to the Connecticut economy than any other man in my lifetime. How can you reward that man, who isn’t even a pleasant fellow?” Markley asks. “When that becomes well known, that will be every bit as damaging to her among rank-and-file Republicans as the fact she gave tens of thousands of dollars to leftists,” Scott concludes. McMahon may be too bipartisan for comfort.

Then you have Schiff, who is an ideological libertarian. His economic proposals radically differ from those of his rivals. “We need to abolish departments, cut entitlement spending, remove regulations. We need the Fed to be independent. We need higher interest rates. We can’t rebuild savings if there’s no return on them,” he says. He is the only one to propose a new chairman for the Federal Reserve: “We have a Fed chairman who’s a political hack. Put Paul Volcker in there. He knows what needs to be done.”

He does not share most conservatives’ foreign-policy commitments, being a classic libertarian non-interventionist. “I don’t even think we should be in Afghanistan. We went in there to get Osama bin Laden, but he’s not even there anymore. I was against going into Iraq from Day One. My foreign policy a) doesn’t bankrupt the nation, and b) defends the nation. We don’t need to build an empire in 160 countries.” This stance poses problems for more mainstream conservatives, to say the least.

On social issues, he refers to the Constitution: “If I’m asked to vote for something that there’s no constitutional authority for, I’m going to vote against it. I don’t think abortion is an issue that has anything to do with the federal government. If the states want to pass laws that restrict access to abortion, that’s up to the states. It’s not up to the federal government. I also think there’s nothing in the Constitution that authorizes spending money on abortions. I would vote against federal funding for abortion.”

If the first question is “Who’s the conservative?” then the second is “Who can win?” Again, the picture is murky.

Simmons has some advantages. “He has a significant geographic base,” Scott said. “His congressional district is roughly one-fifth of the state population, and geographically it’s larger than a fifth. While the second congressional district is not as rich in registered Republicans, it still is a significant base where he still commands a loyal following across the board in the Republican party.” His biography resonates with voters. “He’s a former Vietnam officer. He’s a patriot; he served his country,” MacGuffie says.

McMahon has the message: She is an outsider, a businesswoman who could no longer “sit on the sidelines.” She has the resources, and has pledged to spend up to $50 million of her money on the campaign. Finally, she has the right touch. “The impression I’m getting is that she has taken to campaigning,” Kevin Rennie, a former state senator, says. “She seems to understand that politics is about drudgery. So far, she seems to be making a positive impression.”

She may prove popular. “In this state, we’ve proven that an Irish woman of a certain age from Fairfield County is attractive. Jodi Rell won by landslides,” says Vincent Giandurco, who blogs at Connecticut Local Politics. “She’s a government outsider. The core Republican voter has changed over the last 25 years. In the ’80s, it was a coupon-clipping bond owner from Greenwich. Today it’s a small-business owner. She’s a role model,” Giandurco says.

The most outside of outsiders is Schiff. The general feeling is that he’s unelectable. “He’s too prickly. He’s too know-it-all. It’s all a little bit too Ayn Rand for me,” Giandurco says. Tea Partiers wonder whether he’s serious. “He’s certainly raising money, and that’s always important, but he has a very thin campaign schedule,” Scott says. Schiff rejects the notion that he’s not ready for the majors: “I’m very serious. . . .  I’m putting together an organization. I just opened headquarters. I’m interviewing consultants. The primary isn’t till August.”

So conservatives are split. Markley divides the electorate thus: “Economic libertarians go with Schiff. Optimists who believe what they want to believe go with McMahon. People who think ‘How do we win this election?’ go with Simmons.” He is maybe a little tough on McMahon, but his diagnosis is probably correct. Conservatives need more time to consider their options. Republicans do not have as good a chance to win against Blumenthal as they did against Chris Dodd. If conservatives want to knock out the “senator-elect,” they’d better pack a punch.

– Brian Bolduc is a senior at Harvard College. He can be reached at bolduc@fas.harvard.edu.

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