GOP candidate from Conn., Chris Shays, says Senate needs New England centrist

Former Connecticut U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays listens to his wife, Betsi, speak at the Old State House in Hartford, Conn., during a formal announcement that he is seeking the nomination to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in January 2012.
Jessica Hill | AP
Former Connecticut U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays listens to his wife, Betsi, speak at the Old State House in Hartford, Conn., during a formal announcement that he is seeking the nomination to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in January 2012.
Posted March 25, 2012, at 2:57 p.m.
Last modified March 26, 2012, at 5:38 a.m.

BOLTON, Conn. — In his bid for a political comeback, Republican Senate candidate Christopher Shays of Connecticut is hoping voters will support a dying breed in Washington, D.C. — a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, so-called “New England Republican.”

Despite the recently announced retirement of moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and her expressed frustrations over partisan gridlock, Shays is not deterred. He has been making the pitch to Republican activists that Washington still needs a centrist to work with both parties to balance the federal budget, improve the economy, and not spend valuable time on hot-button social issues.

“My sense is that there are a number of members on both sides of the aisle that just need to see a few other people show some courage,” Shays told The Associated Press in an interview last week, following an appearance before the Bolton Republican Town Committee “Some of them want to be there for the next 12, 18 years. I’m not looking to do that. I’m looking for one truly effective six-year term.”

The term New England Republican has typically meant a Republican who is socially tolerant and opposed to government intervention in issues such as abortion, yet is fiscally conservative. Some critics over the years, however, have questioned their level of fiscal restraint and called them Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs.

When Snowe announced in February that she would not seek a fourth term, she defended being a centrist, saying there’s “a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.”

With her exit, the Republican ranks in the six-state region, especially those considered moderates, are dwindling.

Of New England’s 12 senators, six are Democrats, two are independents who caucus with the Democrats, and four are Republicans. Both Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, also of Maine, are considered moderate.

When Shays lost to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Himes in 2008, he was the last Republican member of the House from New England. Today, only two of the 22 New England House members are Republicans. Both are from New Hampshire.

Since his loss, Shays has served as co-chairman of a federal commission studying waste, fraud and abuse in wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shays supports abortion rights and stem cell research and estimates he voted with the GOP leadership nearly 75 percent of the time when he was in Congress. He claims his centrist approach and years of experience in Congress make him more electable in a general election than Linda McMahon, the former wrestling executive who’s his chief rival for the Republican endorsement and the party’s failed nominee in 2010.

He has picked up support from some fellow moderates and worked to convince the rest of the GOP that he can appeal to unaffiliated voters — the state’s largest voting bloc.

McMahon, who also supports abortion rights, doesn’t want to be referred to as a moderate.

“I’m not going to give myself a label, except to say I’m very fiscally conservative,” she told the AP, adding how she also plans to work with Democratic colleagues on issues and vote her conscience.

Shays left a positive impression with Bolton’s Republican faithful last week, said state Rep. Pamela Sawyer, a Republican who represents the town and has yet to endorse a candidate in Connecticut’s Senate race.

“It’s a very different platform than Linda’s and different from what hers was two years ago also,” said Sawyer, adding how Republican delegates to the May 18 state convention will have a real choice when it comes to endorsing a candidate. No matter who wins the party’s backing, an Aug. 14 primary is still expected.

Sawyer said she believes moderate Republicans like herself stand a good chance of getting elected in many parts of Connecticut because of the state’s large number of unaffiliated voters.

“The vast majority of voters who are (unaffiliated) choose to be and will look at both candidates, Rs and Ds. And in this case, R to R,” she said, referring to Shays and McMahon. Several other lesser-known candidates are also running.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released Thursday shows that while Shays trails McMahon by nine percentage points among Republican primary voters, he runs better than her against three possible Democratic candidates. He nearly ties the Democratic front-runner, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, with Shays winning 40 percent of the vote compared to Murphy’s 41 percent.

The survey of 1,622 registered voters has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Voters appear divided on whether they want to send a moderate Republican to Washington, who would be the first GOP senator from Connecticut since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. from 1971 to 1988, said Poll Director Douglas Schwartz.

“It’s not like he wins the election, he’s in a tie with the two Democrats,” Schwartz said. “But if you think about the fact that Connecticut is a blue state, that’s a pretty good showing for an open seat.”

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