Shays says McMahon WWE record, deaths fair game in Senate GOP contest
Former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays is trying to strip Linda McMahon of her belt as a job creator in the Republican race for U.S. Senate, saying McMahon's record as former chief executive of WWE is rife with the tragic deaths of the very same wrestlers McMahon has made part of her campaign narrative of corporate success and economic prosperity.
"Let's think about it: She's got over 41 people 50 years and younger who've died in her jobs. That's quite a job record that she's created," Shays said last week.
In response, McMahon campaign spokeswoman Erin Isaac released a statement saying that the two-time Senate contender is focused on finding solutions for unemployment. It made no mention of Stamford-based WWE.
"Nearly 160,000 people woke up in Connecticut without a job this morning," Isaac wrote. "Linda spent her day talking with folks about her plan to put them back to work. This positive message and Linda's proven record of job creation are exactly why she is endorsed by more than 1,800 hardworking families and small business owners and nearly 130 grassroots leaders across the state, including 20 Republican State Central Committee members and 60 Republican Town Committee chairs."
Shays' comments came in an extended interview on the state of his campaign for the open seat of retiring incumbent Joe Lieberman, which has been somewhat overshadowed by McMahon's second shot at the Senate since 2010.
A casualty of the 2008 election who represented the 4th Congressional District for 21 years, Shays accused McMahon's campaign of telling Republicans that he's dropping out of the race, which he said couldn't be further from the truth. Shays said he's in the contest for the long haul, from the state Republican convention in May to the Aug. 14 GOP primary.
"They've been saying that. There's no secret," Shays said. "I realize that whether I win the convention or lose the convention, there's still going to be a primary. I think I can win the convention, so I'm starting with that premise."
McMahon's campaign declined to comment further.
Shays conceded that he is likely to be heavily outspent by McMahon, who holds the record for self-funded candidates in Connecticut with her $50 million personal investment in her unsuccessful 2010 campaign against then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.
"There's no way people believe she's a fiscal conservative if she's willing to waste $50 million," Shays said. "There is nothing about McMahon that intimidates me because I think you can't buy an election. I know you can't buy an election."
And then there is wrestling.
"They're not off limits," Shays said.
McMahon's political foes have accused her company of disregarding the welfare of her wrestlers, whether it was making them sign so-called "death clauses" releasing WWE from liability or not providing them health coverage as independent contractors despite the physical demands of the industry.
During the 14 months of McMahon's 2010 Senate candidacy alone, five former WWE wrestlers under the age of 60 died.
Fundraising totals for the fourth quarter of 2011 should be available within the next two weeks, said Shays, who expects to eclipse the $3 million to $4 million threshold set by his previous two campaigns for the House over the course of the race.
"We have to raise a decent amount of money to get our story out," said Shays, who moved back to Bridgeport last August after a three-year absence. During that time, he was co-chairman of a government committee that probed the practice of wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shays boasted that he is the candidate best positioned to restore fiscal sanity in Washington, rebuild infrastructure and champion energy independence. The Senate hasn't passed a budget in 987 days, which Shays characterized as a disgrace.
"I know what we have to do to get our country back on track," Shays said. "America is going bankrupt."
Also running to be the standard-bearer for the GOP, which hasn't won a Senate race in 30 years in Connecticut, are Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy and Hartford lawyer Brian K. Hill, a former U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps officer who lives in Windsor.
The winner of the August primary could face Democrats U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-New Britain; former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, or state Rep. William Tong, of Stamford, in the general election.
"If we don't win this seat in this election, we may have a 60-year drought if we're not careful," Shays said.
Shays said his political operation consists of about 10 staff members based in Stratford and led by his campaign manager, Matt Wylie.
A former executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, Wylie runs a political consulting firm and has worked as a top adviser on several campaigns, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was a director on the successful re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the fall of 2004. Earlier that year, he was campaign manager for the unsuccessful Senate bid in Georgia of Herman Cain, who made headlines this year for his meteoric run for the GOP presidential nod. Wylie also served as a political director on former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft's unsuccessful 2000 re-election campaign.
"A lot of people don't really know yet that I'm in this race," Shays said. "We'll be having a lot of events in the weeks and months to come."
Shays downplayed a string of endorsements touted by McMahon's campaign, saying he didn't want to hound prospective supporters during the November municipal elections or the holidays.
"One of the things that the McMahon people don't realize is that the people they talk to are my friends, too," Shays said. "I basically view McMahon's support as broader than mine and paper thin."
Shays urged his fellow Republicans to do their homework on McMahon, saying that her "motherhood and apple pie" statements lack substance and don't match up to her history of political donations to Democrats.
In 2007, McMahon gave $5,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to the D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the role of money in elections. The following year, she contributed $2,300 to Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel, the former DCCC chairman who would become chief of staff for President Obama and now is the mayor of Chicago.
"It's called chutzpah. You helped elect a Democratic Congress that wrote Obamacare and then you want to repeal it," Shays said.
"While she was in her entertainment business, which promotes bullying, I was balancing the federal budget and creating 8 million federal jobs," Shays said. "While I was doing that, she was in the entertainment business making millions. Some people ended up dying because of it. It's all part of her record."
Asked whether he plans to employ someone as a McMahon "tracker" -- a political operative who videotapes an opposing candidate's every move, hoping to catch a blunder -- Shays dismissed the possibility.
"I never have. I can't imagine doing it," Shays said.
Shays is getting acclimated to at least one new cultural phenomenon since his last run for office: Twitter.
"I'm tweeting myself. I'll get better and better," he said. "I've just got to make sure I don't get myself in trouble."