Connecticut may not be known as a hotbed of conservative activism, but the Nutmeg State's Republican Senate primary may just serve as the Petri dish for the viability of the Tea Party.
The primary pits former Congressman Chris Shays, a moderate who served 21 years in the House, against Linda McMahon, who won the Republican Senate nomination in 2010 only to lose handily in the general election to her Democratic opponent. McMahon, whose family runs WWE, a professional wrestling organization, was propelled to the GOP nomination by appealing to Tea Party conservatives and ultimately spent $50 million during her 2010 losing bid.
Shays, meanwhile, was the only Republican member of Congress left in New England before losing his seat to a Democrat in the 2008 election. Recent polling shows him trailing McMahon, but he has been making up ground of late. A Quinnipiac poll that analyzing Shays' and McMahon's chances against potential Democratic opponents illustrated the case that Shays' campaign has been trying to make – he performs better in the general election than his top rival does.
"This is an Obama-blue state. And to have Christopher Shays running in a dead heat with the leading Democrat, it really means something," says Amanda Bergen, a spokeswoman for Shays. "She spent $50 million in an election and lost by 12 points."
And here's where Connecticut serves as the canary in the coal mine for Tea Partiers: Will Connecticut Republicans again nominate a candidate billing themselves as the 'true' conservative, but with a record of falling short with general election voters?
Jeffrey Ladewig, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, says McMahon still holds the primary advantage even in the face of Shays' electability argument.
"It's not a horrible tactic, but it will be tough for him to make it," he says. "Again, her money advantage will probably overwhelm him just like she used the money advantage in the Senate race last time."
Ladewig says even though the Connecticut Republican Party is small and more moderate than in other states, the Tea Party crowd still serves as an important and influential subset.
"Shays has a very strong, moderate record from the U.S. Congress and generally that's played very well in the district that he served for so long in southwest Connecticut," Ladewig says. "But in the current climate, I don't know if that's going to play as well statewide, as even in Connecticut Republicans have moved more to the right than they were in the past."
It really does come down to resources and the fact that McMahon has a successful statewide primary campaign under her belt, Ladewig says.
"Having won the primary two years ago, she's kind of the 'incumbent' Republican nominee that way. I think that will be an advantage to her this time around as well," he says. "It will obviously come down to turnout, obviously getting your base out, but she has advantages in most of those areas."
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