Alex Constantine - February 10, 2010
East Hartford - Wearing his trench coat and UCONN ROTC baseball cap, Robert Ruhl Simmons is walking through the front door of a Burger King on a humdrum stretch of Silver Lane, talking into a cell phone.
He does not sound very happy.
"How many times did I say 'I'm a candidate for the Senate,'" the former Republican congressman and, indeed, candidate for U.S. Senate, exclaims. "And they put that (expletive) headline on it?"
That (expletive) headline is the one affixed to a transcript of an interview Simmons conducted a few hours earlier, with Rick Klein of ABC's "The Note," and it reads as follows: "Simmons Won't Rule Out Run For Former House Seat."
In a Senate race that keeps turning itself upside down, and usually not in ways that seem to his advantage, this is the sort of speculation that the Simmons campaign has been trying mightily to squelch.
No, Simmons says, he will not abandon this increasingly costly and hard-fought primary battle with former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon to run for his old congressional seat.
Simmons began his Senate bid by taking aim at a wounded incumbent, Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, whose cratering approval ratings made him an irresistible target.
Dodd, though, may have looked a little too vulnerable. Soon the Republican Senate field swelled with potential challengers. It has now been winnowed down to three. One is Peter Schiff, the investment fund head who claimed to have foreseen the downturn Dodd missed.
But far more threatening to Simmons is McMahon, who launched a campaign in September into which she pledged as much as $50 million of her own fortune. She has proved a tough and determined opponent despite efforts by Simmons' loyalists to tie her to the most outrageous examples of her company's often risque and violent programming.
When the new year began with Dodd's withdrawal from the race and his replacement with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, one of the state's most popular politicians, the speculation began in earnest: Maybe Simmons should pull out to run for his old House seat, against Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, leaving McMahon to throw her millions into a long-odds quest to flatten Blumenthal in November.
"There's a sense that it's going to take a ridiculous amount of money to defeat Blumenthal, and McMahon has shown a willingness to put in signifcant resources," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
But Simmons isn't about to hand the race over to McMahon. Last week he launched a statewide tour in which he parlayed his post-Congress stint as Connecticut's state Business Advocate into the role of the campaign's leading expert on the needs of workers and small businesses.
Rethinking some stances
Rob Simmons doesn't talk much these days about being a "big labor Republican," the label once bestowed on him by a Wall Street Journal editorial, and one he found useful in selling himself to skeptical independents and Democrats.
And if he has mentioned his lifelong membership in the Sierra Club, as he did as a matter of course in his campaigns for Congress, it's gone unnoticed in the press.
It used to be that Congressman Simmons' chief of staff would berate local reporters for making insufficient mention of the boss' moderate qualifications - the National Journal surveys saying he was one of the most likely to break with party leaders, the endorsements from NARAL and the kind words from Planned Parenthood.
These used to be the stock-in-trade of Simmons, who habitually referred to himself as "a Connecticut Republican," a different breed entirely from the arch-conservative gang then running the country.
The candidate says he hasn't walked away from most of those moderate qualifications, which, mixed with a CIA and Army veteran's reflexive hard-line foreign policy instincts, helped him knock off a 20-year incumbent in 2000 and hold the seat until a heartbreakingly narrow defeat by Courtney in 2006.
Where Simmons has noticeably shifted his stance - reversing himself to oppose a cap-and-trade system to fight global warming, and also to oppose the card-check bill sought by labor unions - he explains he was affected by his tenure as business advocate.
"Invariably I'd hear about energy costs and invariably I'd hear about labor costs," he said of his visits to more than 400 businesses around the state. "And that brought me to the conclusion that any increase in energy costs was going to be bad for the economy here ... and that any ease of organizing, and in particular an open-ballot process, was not going to be beneficial."
But these shifts are less noticeable than the shift in Simmons' tone. He is now courting the diehards of his party's primary base, offering up a different, opposite set of bona fides to the Tea Party faithful.
He has seldom missed an opportunity to wield his favorite prop, his pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution. And now he has reportedly begun dangling an additional accessory: a tea bag. (He deflects a question about it during his ABC interview with a chuckle: "I actually used the tea bag this morning. I had a cup of tea.")
In an interview, Simmons says he is the same man.
"I'm running on my record," Simmons said. "Certainly, I have a record. I guess I'm the only candidate on the Republican side who has a record, and I'm not running away from that record.
"I have clearly identified a couple of issues where I've changed my mind based on the experience that I've had between then and now," he said. "And I think it's important for a public official to be able to digest new information and to reshape his or her views in a fashion that is reasonable, and to admit to past mistakes. I admit to past mistakes. Always have."
A little fire and brimstone
In his press conferences and the meetings with town Republican groups, Simmons mixes fire-and-brimstone fiscal populism with a handful of well-honed biographical stories and a nerdy uncle's skill with a joke.
He condemns taxes, praises small business as the "engine of the economy," warns that federal health care reform will represent "government takeover" of the medical and insurance systems, and regales groups with the story of his paternal grandfather, who built the family business of manufacturing fire equipment into five separate companies, "truly," Simmons says, "the American dream."
Appearing at HABCO Inc. in Glastonbury, Simmons is revisiting the site of past victories. He helped speed Pentagon approval for one of this metal fabrication firm's innovations: a steel cage that slides around the highly pressurized tires of military helicopters when they are being serviced.
The device was developed after a tire explosion killed a U.S. service member in 2003, CEO Kristin Muschette said, but languished for 18 months in the queue of technologies offered to the Pentagon until Simmons, then the local congressman, intervened.
Taking a tour of the company's small factory, Simmons is at his most gregarious, throwing an arm around Bruce Prokesch as he cuts openings into a cylindrical steel tank, chatting up the firm's engineers about their academic histories and spinning around to the desk of a secretary to admire her potted plant.
"How do you get that to grow?" Simmons asks in a tone of pure wonder.
"You water it, from the top," the woman replies.
The CEO and the candidate move on down the row of desks with cameras, aides and reporters in tow.
In his public appearances, Simmons barely if ever mentions McMahon, or even the existence of primary challengers. In an interview, he was more forceful.
"She has no record," he said.
Asked if the content of the WWE's programming offends him, Simmons paused for several long seconds - as an aide looked at him, worried and expectant - then broke into a chuckle.
"I'm trying to figure out how to answer the question," he said. "I think there are aspects of her business that promote sex, drugs and violence, and promote it to young people. And I think that can be troublesome."
Ed Patru, a spokesman for McMahon, scoffed at the charges.
"Linda absolutely has a record," he said in an e-mail message. "It's one of balancing budgets, expanding business and creating jobs. People have more confidence in outsiders with real-world business experience at this point than they do in the politicians."
Of the WWE, he said: "WWE is obviously a soap opera that isn't real. Rob Simmons never once criticized WWE until Linda McMahon became his opponent and his campaign began to falter. It's transparent politics from a very desperate and bitter politician."
Simmons doesn't ever use that word to describe himself, but in interviews and public appearances he doesn't shirk it, either. He invokes his work as a Senate aide to Sens. Barry Goldwater and John Chafee, jousts with reporters on the procedural arcana of the health care debate, and returns again and again to his exploits as a congressman fighting for the local interests.
Whether Republican primary voters put a premium on such experience or on outsider status could have a major effect on the race, says Gonzales.
"There are Republicans who believe McMahon offers a greater contrast (to Blumenthal), that she brings more to the table, but Republicans in the Simmons camp say she has too much baggage," he says. "She will become an issue in the general election when Republicans want to keep the issue about Democrats."
Making a good impression
Late in the day, Simmons is in the midst of an impassioned and persuasive appeal to the New Milford Republican Town Committee. He addresses a crowd of roughly 35 people packed into a small back dining room at Milano's on Railroad Street.
The candidate is rolling, at his comfortable best, talking about service and the military, brandishing his Constitution, needling Blumenthal with a relatively new prop - the report from the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute that labels Blumenthal the "worst attorney general" in the country - and working his way, eventually, to his standard joke about his mother, the 97-year-old Democrat, and her advice: If they clap for you, be quiet and quit while you're ahead.
Taking questions and answers from the audience, Simmons shares their concerns about health care and warns of "government takeover." He says he wonders how exactly the Obama administration will cut Medicare costs without cutting the level of benefits for seniors.
"I'm a little skeptical how they're going to cut half a trillion dollars out and service is going to remain the same," Simmons says.
Minutes later, a different questioner wants to know when the Congress will go after entitlement-program spending, a proposition with which Simmons unflinchingly agrees.
"I say we've got to go after the entitlements," Simmons says.
How cutting spending on entitlements differs from cutting costs in Medicare (the largest entitlement program) is left unsaid, as is any explanation of how Simmons, as opposed to Obama or a Democratic Congress, would achieve savings other than through reducing or delaying benefits.
In the back of the room, Steve Pilla is impressed.
Pilla says he's a builder, and he came to the town committee meeting with his father, knowing little about Simmons.
"I like that he fought for our country," Pilla says. "But I think for him to win, he's got to get his name out there a little more. A couple of people asked me who he was."
And not even Pilla's vote is locked up yet, as he and other Republicans view their feuding potential nominees through the prism that matters most now: how each might measure up against Blumenthal in November.
"I was really impressed with him," Pilla says, "but she's got the name. It's a difficult decision."