The Washington Post

Why Linda McMahon has a fighting chance in Connecticut

Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon has a shot at a very unlikely proposition: winning a Senate race in a blue state in a presidential year, after voters rejected her there two years ago in the midst of a GOP wave. 

So how did McMahon get to the point at which polls show a close race with Rep. Chris Murphy (D)? A confluence of factors, including increased support from women, a flawed opponent and, until recently, a dearth of paid media attacks against her. To be clear, Connecticut’s Democratic lean and President Obama’s expected double-digit victory there suggest the fundamentals still favor Murphy. But McMahon is hanging around. It’s worth looking at why.

(Jessica Hill/AP)

Let’s start at the beginning -- which in this case is 2010.

McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment lost to then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) by 12 points. She spent a whopping $50 million, but it wasn’t enough to defeat the popular and well-known Democrat and overcome the negative image Democrats stoked about McMahon’s association with professional wrestling.

McMahon decided to make a second try for the Senate this cycle. She didn’t embark on her new campaign without heeding lessons from the old one. Her performance among women, who account for about half the electorate, was abysmal in 2010. She won less than four-in-ten women (37 percent), according to exit polling data. Now, she claims the support of 44 percent of women, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday that shows McMahon running even with Murphy.

McMahon’s involvement in professional wrestling contributed to the negative attitude women had toward her in 2010. This time around, she's sought to soften her image and open up a dialogue with women across the state.

In 2011, she launched a statewide tour recognizing women in business. She’s made biweekly coffee sessions in the homes of women a regular part of her schedule. She’s also tapped her immense wealth to try to make her case over the airwaves and blunt Democratic attacks.

"There has been a huge shift and reorientation in the campaign focused on women," McMahon strategist Chris LaCivita told The Fix.

Murphy recently released a scathing TV ad that said McMahon “demeaned women to make millions in her business.” McMahon promptly responded with her own commercial  in which she declared: “Murphy calls me anti-women. But Chris, take a look. I am a woman. A pro-choice woman."

Another difference between 2012 and 2010 is the Democratic nominee. Unlike Blumenthal, Murphy is not a well-known attorney general who had served in that post for almost 20 years. He's only served in the House since 2007 and isn’t very well-known outside his district.

That’s made it easier for McMahon to define Murphy. A recent string of negative headlines about facing foreclosure and his failure to pay rent didn’t help the Democrat. McMahon pounced with a negative ad.

But McMahon has had to contend with personal image issues of her own. She was late with property taxes and a local paper gave a decades-old bankruptcy renewed attention last month when it reported new details. Meanwhile, most Connecticut voters have negative opinion of professional wrestling, according to the Quinnipiac poll.

Murphy spokesman Eli Zupnick told The Fix he believes voters have turned away from the stories about Murphy’s personal finances the past couple of weeks because attacks against them have “exposed [McMahon’s] own hypocrisy.”

Democratic strategists have zeroed in on a couple of attacks against McMahon, involving entitlements and her support for the so-called Blunt Amendment, a failed congressional measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of covering contraceptive services. On Friday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a new ad hitting McMahon over her comment about “sunset provisions” in a discussion about Social Security.

The DSCC has spent over $1.2 million on advertising so far, while Republican groups have not entered the fray. And why would they? McMahon’s wealth means she doesn’t need the financial reinforcement other Republicans in close Senate races do.

According to her campaign finance report, McMahon had spent about $12 million though late July. Murphy announced Friday that he raised $3 million during the third quarter, a solid number, but not one that will bring him to financial parity with the Republican. McMahon hasn't yet released her third quarter number. 

Democrats chalk up McMahon’s success this cycle to a long period in which she never faced heavy paid media attacks. Now that they have stepped up their offensive game, they believe it will take its toll. With both sides launching barbs, the Quinnipiac poll shows that unfavorable opinions of both Murphy and McMahon have been on the rise since late August. Ultimately, this race could come down to which side’s negative hits gain more traction.

Looking at the Senate map, a Republican victory in Connecticut would be welcome news for the party, which has seen its chances in the once-promising pickup opportunity in Missouri race slip from its grasp when embattled Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) refused to end his campaign amid controversial comments.

Ultimately, McMahon may have to outrun Mitt Romney in Connecticut by 15 points. And as Democrats continue to attack her, her image will sustain hits it can hardly afford. In other words, McMahon may well be 0-2 in Senate races on Nov. 7. But it won’t be because she went down without a fight when many others had written off her chances.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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