By SUSAN HAIGH
SEYMOUR, Conn. (AP) _ U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is pitching himself to Connecticut’s Democratic faithful as the candidate to be united behind in the race for the U.S. Senate seat, especially if they want someone who has already raised a sizeable amount of money and is prepared to battle Republican Linda McMahon, the wealthy former wrestling executive who spent $50 million on her last Senate bid.
While two other Democrats _ former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and Stamford state Rep. William Tong _ are also vying for the party’s endorsement, Murphy made it clear to members of the Seymour Democratic Town Committee last week that he’d like to avoid a primary, warning them that McMahon wants nothing more than to see the Democratic candidate bloodied before the general election.
“I hope that we don’t go through a primary. I think that Linda McMahon is crossing her fingers and hoping that our party spends the better part of the spring and summer arguing amongst ourselves and spending our resources,” he told the group. “So I hope the candidate that comes out of the convention strongest is one that we can rally around. I think that we’ll be that campaign.”
Bysiewicz and Tong, however, say not so fast. Both said they plan to remain in the race after the May 12 state convention.
“It would be a tremendous shame to disenfranchise primary voters by somehow suggesting that everyone should get behind one candidate when there are three distinct perspectives,” said Bysiewicz, adding how Democratic voters she has spoken to expect a primary on Aug. 14.
For the second Senate election cycle in a row, Connecticut finds itself with an open Senate seat and intense competition to fill the job. This year, candidates are hoping to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
Tong, who trails his rivals in fundraising, said none of the three Democrats will ultimately be able to match McMahon when it comes to financial resources, given her personal wealth. However, he maintains all three will have the resources to compete and get their message out after winning the primary.
“We’re not electing a fundraiser. We’re electing a U.S. Senator,” he said. “It’s important to keep that focus in mind.”
As of December, federal records show Murphy had raised nearly $3.4 million; Bysiewicz $1.5 million; and Tong $873,348.
Besides his ability to raise cash, Murphy points to the numerous endorsements he has received from top Democrats and unions; the grassroots political organization he has built over the past six years; his record of winning in Republican districts; his efforts to help manufacturers with legislation encouraging the purchase of American products, and his record of public service, first winning a state House seat at the age of 25.
“(McMahon) is going to run a better race than she ran in 2010, and we have to make sure that we nominate a candidate who is not only ready to the do the job on Day One, will fight for our values, but who can win in November,” Murphy told the Democrats in Seymour.
Steven Kulas, chairman of the Seymour Democratic town committee, said he expects the Republicans will put up a strong fight, even though it is a presidential election year and a Democratic incumbent president will be at the top of the ticket. Kulas is not convinced McMahon will ultimately be the GOP’s choice. He said former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who represented the 4th congressional district from 1987 to 2009, appeals to many traditional Republicans in the state. Several lesser-known Republicans are also running.
Kulas said he believes Murphy, who currently represents the GOP-heavy 5th congressional district, is the best candidate to beat whichever Republican candidate emerges.
“He’s got the money. I think he’s got the experience to run in very difficult times against very strong Republican candidates,” Kulas said. “I think that’s what makes him very attractive, because he’s gone against the grain and won. And that somewhat resonates here because we are a Republican town and as Democrats, we like candidates who do well against Republicans in Republican strongholds.”
Seymour Democrats proved how much they like Murphy last week, amending their agenda in the middle of their meeting to endorse him.
But both Tong and Bysiewicz question why the party would now want to rally around an incumbent member of Congress, considering the low opinion most members of the public have of Washington.
“I do think it’s ironic when Congress is at such a low point, the congressman would suggest that we don’t have a primary,” said Bysiewicz, who points out how she has been a top vote-getter for the Democrats when she ran for secretary of the state, and won a tough primary after first losing the party’s endorsement at the convention. She has also served as a state representative.
Bysiewicz also touts her proposal to hold Wall Street accountable for the banking crisis, which she said sets her apart from Murphy. Among other things, it calls for a new transaction tax on short-term trades to reduce volatility in the markets and raise money to help struggling homeowners.
Tong, meanwhile, argues that he offers primary voters something different from both Murphy and Bysiewicz. He started a law career before being elected to the General Assembly and can tell his personal story of growing up, working in his immigrant parents’ Chinese restaurant, washing dishes and waiting on tables before graduating from an Ivy League university and law school.
“(McMahon) wants to run against career politicians,” Tong said. “She can’t do that to me. She can do that to Chris Murphy and Susan Bysiewicz.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)