I got a call from Linda McMahon tonight. Actually, an automated Linda left a voice mail, about some sort of uncontroversial issue or other. She has a surprisingly calm, reassuring voice. Entertainers with some marketing savvy, like Sarah Palin, can make it far in today’s political world, I reflected.
My reaction to McMahon early on, much like my reaction to Palin, was to roll my eyes. She’s got a big millstone with “WWE” carved on it hanging around her neck, I thought, she’s obviously doomed. And yet, here she still is, breathing down the supposedly-invincible Richard Blumenthal’s neck. In fact, McMahon’s remarkable rise and her staying power despite what seems like a fatal flaw may be the political story of the year in Connecticut so far.
Speaking of that flaw, stories are flying around this week about the death of a former WWE wrestler at age 29. Once again steroids, the WWE’s “wellness program,” and the stark disconnect between McMahon’s campaign persona and the reality of life in the company she ran are back in the spotlight. ‘Surely,’ I can hear Democrats think, ‘this is too much. Surely people will abandon her now.’ All they have to do, they believe, is keep pressing the wrestling angle, and McMahon will be done. And yet, every time the WWE explodes in McMahon’s face, every time her opponents think they have her, she seems to emerge stronger than ever.
The wrestling stories aren’t exactly new. In January of 2009, when McMahon was appointed to the state board of education, bloggers and journalists immediately sprinted to YouTube to find videos of McMahon doing silly or offensive things in the ring. Newspapers and websites all over the state posted the videos, along with what everyone assumed were incredibly clever wrestling-themed headlines. The common thread seemed to be, ‘Look at this silly stuff. How can anyone take her seriously after this?’ McMahon seemed to float above it all.
Now, the wrestling stories are a lot more gruesome and the videos harder to find since the WWE had most of them pulled, but McMahon remains untouched. In fact, she’s been creeping up on Blumenthal: A Quinnipiac Poll showed her within 10 points of him earlier this month, and a more recent Rasmussen Poll had her within 7. Apparently this is the year for impossible things to happen.
So… what’s going on? Why is she doing do well, despite the constant negative press? Do voters actually care about this stuff this year?
Obviously, some do. A small group calling itself “Republicans for Blumenthal” popped up this week, for instance. But McMahon has made good use of her millions of dollars to make voters look past, or simply ignore, these unsettling wrestling stories. If you live in (or even near) Connecticut, chances are you’ve received dozens of glossy Linda for Senate mailers by now, in which there is plenty of praise for her record as a successful businesswoman; exactly what sort of business she ran is rarely mentioned, however. It almost never comes up in her ubiquitous TV, radio and web ads, either.
What McMahon and her experienced, highly-paid team have done in all this time is remarkable. They have almost entirely obscured the seedier side of McMahon’s record as a CEO, while portraying their candidate as a very nice businesswoman who just wants to go to Washington and do… something good involving not raising taxes. They have wrapped McMahon in a pleasant, obscuring fog. She has become the very picture of a moderate, business-friendly, position-free Republican, broken from the same mold as the woman who first plunked her down into the political arena: Governor M. Jodi Rell. It’s almost like we’re conditioned to like McMahon after six years of Rell.
Unsurprisingly, her poll numbers have trended steadily upwards. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of her huge financial advantage; for example, she has been on TV pushing this image of herself since last September. By contrast, Richard Blumenthal went on the air this month.
Blumenthal himself is part of the problem for Democrats. This is a man who is obviously used to smiling, waving, and winning his campaigns by a mile, and he has little idea of how to deal with a real fight. His campaign seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, from his Vietnam gaffes to his astonishing statement that he was some sort of political outsider, despite being the most visible face of Connecticut government over the past two decades. A long record of government service and populist crusading apparently doesn’t test well this year.
McMahon’s campaign seems to be able to deal smoothly with the constant WWE-related crises, probably because they’ve been planning for them from the beginning. Blumenthal, by contrast, seems befuddled by any negative attention. It must be infuriating to his campaign. After all, is fudging the truth about Vietnam service really so much worse than running a business that, according to former wrestler Chris Nowinski and others, including the family of recently deceased ex-wrestler Lance McNaught, rewards steroid use and takes a terrible physical toll on performers? It’s an indication of just how much of modern campaigning is clever marketing and obfuscation, and just how malleable the voting populace has become, that the answer seems to be yes.
The stories about the WWE are ghastly, but so far they are not the millstone I thought they were at first. This is the lesson of Sarah Palin, perhaps: no amount of presumably fatal flaws can sink a smart political figure who constantly says the right things to the right people. It may take polls that show McMahon ahead (I wouldn’t be surprised to see these in September), to convince Democrats that they are in a serious race, and that media focus on the WWE alone won’t bring her down.
Chris Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.