Establishment Republicans in Washington are rallying around former Rep. Christopher Shays in his bid to become the party's Senate nominee in Connecticut this fall, arguing that he is the party's best chance to seize the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman.
But many party grass-roots activists instead are backing Linda McMahon, the pro-wrestling executive who won the GOP nomination for Senate in 2010 only to lose the general election in one of several races in which a tea party-backed candidate won the primary but faltered in the general election.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, headlined a fundraiser for Mr. Shays on Monday in an attempt to head off a win by Mrs. McMahon that could darken Republicans' chances to seize overall control of the Senate, after polls indicated that she would lose to a Democrat in the general election while Mr. Shays could win.
They are vying for the chance to succeed Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, and for the chance to face off against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Christopher S. Murphy.
Mrs. McMahon has won the state GOP convention and brings an extensive ground campaign, vast personal wealth and a 9-percentage-point lead in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll as she and Mr. Shays prepare for an August primary.
She also has the simmering anti-incumbent anger of GOP voters on her side. While Mr. Shays spent 21 years in the House before losing his seat to Democrat James A. Himes four years ago, the closest she has come to holding public office was a stint on the state Board of Education.
"Congress has very low public approval ratings right now, and Chris Murphy is part of that establishment and so is Chris Shays," said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. "There is a hefty share of voters who are so down on the people inside the Beltway that maybe they're willing to give McMahon a chance."
But some Republicans fear that nominating Mrs. McMahon again could torpedo one of their best chances to capture a seat, just as they fear they have made the U.S. Senate race in Indiana more competitive when tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock upset six-term incumbent Sen. Richard G. Lugar in a primary last month.
Mrs. McMahon's campaign insists that she would perform better than expected in the general election, even though she is running to the right of Mr. Shays in a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1982.
Conservatives argue that Mr. Shays' view of government would be too similar to that of his Democratic opponent, leaving voters with little reason to choose the GOP candidate. Chris LaCivita, a political consultant to the McMahon campaign, pointed to the congressman's support for provisions such as "cap-and-trade" energy legislation and pro-union bills.
"If you provide voters of Connecticut two congressmen with similar views of government, who are they going to go to?" he said. "Well, reflexively they're going to go with the Democrat."
Mr. Shays and Mrs. McMahon come from vastly different backgrounds. Mr. Shays served in the Connecticut General Assembly before he was elected to Congress and compiled a moderate voting record. After losing his seat in 2008, he was appointed to serve as co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting to study contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mrs. McMahon and her husband, Vince McMahon, built World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) from a regional to a multinational company before Mrs. McMahon left in 2009 to run for the Senate. Personally investing $50 million in the race, she won the primary but lost to State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee, by 12 points.
As in her last campaign, opponents have used WWE's often raunchy programming against Mrs. McMahon. Mr. Shays this year accused her of peddling "soft-core porn" and said the organization promoted bullying.
But analysts say Mrs. McMahon has more successfully framed her WWE tenure as valuable business experience. She began airing a television ad last month that highlights her family, and she has spent more time reaching out to female voters by holding "Conversations with Linda" in women's homes throughout the state.
"It's a different type of campaign, it has a more personal look to it," said Mr. Rose. "It seems to have much more empathy, compared to her pervious campaign, and I think it's going to move undecided voters."
Mrs. McMahon has been working on her organizational ground game since she lost in 2010. It showed at the state Republican convention, where she won 60 percent of the delegates. Mr. Shays won more than enough delegates to advance to the state primary, but ended up with 32 percent. His campaign tried to shrug off that finish.
"I think 60 percent is by no means a mandate," said spokeswoman Amanda Bergen. "This is a very small group of people — 1,200 people versus roughly 150,000 who will vote in the primary — so that is not a clear message at all."
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