After gaining statewide name recognition by spending a record-setting $50 million and saturating mailboxes and airwaves with advertising during her first bid for the U.S. Senate two years ago, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is now focusing on retail politics.
“Clearly it makes a difference that people know who I am,” said McMahon, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. “We have many more endorsements than we had [at this time] during the last election.”
The 130 guests at a campaign event last week in Ansonia received a six-page list that included former gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, several state legislators, municipal leaders, former state party chairmen and town committee leaders.
“From my observation, she has the edge in winning the convention,” said state Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, who has not made an endorsement.
The other Republican candidates are former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays of Bridgeport, attorney Kie Westby of Southbury, attorney Brian K. Hill of Windsor, attorney Peter Lumaj of Fairfield and former Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy, who has technically suspended his campaign.
McMahon, who was considered an outsider two years ago when she ran for the seat that was being vacated by then-U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, captured 51.7 percent of the vote at the GOP convention to 44.6 percent for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, who was the early frontrunner, and 3.1 percent for Peter Schiff, the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital. Three months later she won a Republican primary with 49.4 percent of the vote.
It is expected that this year the nomination again will ultimately be decided in an August primary.
Scribner said that after establishing name recognition two years ago, McMahon’s early success this cycle is largely due to her personal interaction with potential supporters.
“She became known throughout the state with the commercials and fliers, but I heard a lot of comment from people who thought her advertising was excessive, and that it brought some negative attention to her wealth,” he said in a phone interview. “I think it is a positive development that she learned something from that and is handling her campaign now in a different, strategic way.”
Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr., who has promised to remain neutral during the primary, agreed.
“I think Linda has taken stock of what worked in 2010 and what didn’t work and that evaluation has led to a lot of changes,” Labriola said. “She’s pretty much cleaned house and started with a new team.”
Former state Sen. Tom Scott, R-Milford, who led the revolt 21 years ago against the state income tax and then ran as an independent candidate for governor in 1994, is serving as her political director. She also has a new campaign manager and new communications staff.
Also, unlike two years ago, McMahon is seeking campaign contributions.
“It gives me access to a particular portion of the voters that I didn’t have the last time,” she said. “I think there were folks that wanted to contribute to the campaign [in 2010] and be part of it, so I said this time I want to be more inclusive,” McMahon added.
“There’s going to be a real effort to build this from the bottom up,” state Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said. “I don’t think it’s so important how much money she raises, but the number of people that she gets to contribute.”
Former state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, who was the GOP nominee two years ago in the Fifth Congressional District after dropping out of the Senate race, said McMahon’s interpersonal communication skills are one of her biggest strengths.
“People virtually line up to speak to her and have their photo taken with her,” he said in a phone interview.
“They like to look you right in the eye and shake your hand,” McMahon said as she took a brief break last week from greeting her guests and posing for photographs.
“She connects with people better than anybody I’ve seen in my 30 years in the political world,” Markley said. “When she is talking to you, she really is talking to you, which is a rare thing in politics. Usually the politician is looking over your shoulder at the next person in line.”
Scribner recalled that in his initial meeting with McMahon two years ago they “talked for over an hour, and as we talked you could tell that she was focused on what I was saying and followed up with thoughtful questions. I saw that happen with other people throughout the campaign.”
“She is genuinely concerned about what’s going on in your life,” said Joseph Reese, a McMahon supporter from Watertown.
However, some of McMahon’s GOP opponents said her 2010 performance underscored that she isn’t electable.
They have said that in a Republican year she lost even though she spent an unprecedented sum of money and provided information for a New York Times story published three days before the Democratic state convention that her opponent, then-state Attorney Gen. Richard Blumenthal, had misstated his military service.
The national press initially pronounced Blumenthal’s campaign dead and then moved on after the crisis passed.
A Quinnipiac poll released five weeks before the election reported that McMahon only trailed Blumenthal by three points, but she ended up losing by 12 points.
“Blumenthal was exceedingly difficult to defeat,” Caligiuri said. “He had been on television several times a week for 20 years as Connecticut’s consumer watchdog and received very little bad press over that time. A candidate with that kind of operating base is almost unbeatable and I think Linda came as close as anyone could.”
“I definitely think that she can defeat Chris Murphy,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is the apparent Democratic frontrunner in a field that also includes state Rep. William Tong of Stamford and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz of Middletown.
However, some of former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons’ supporters complained two years ago that McMahon lacked command of the issues.
The most notable episode came in late September when at a news conference in which she was endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses she said she didn’t know that Connecticut’s minimum wage was $8.25 an hour.
“She got better on the issues over time,” Caligiuri, who has not endorsed a candidate, said. “Her work ethic is strong and at this point she is well-versed on the issues.”
Over the recent months, McMahon has written op-ed columns on the congressional super committee on the federal debt and the Keystone energy project.
Perhaps most surprisingly, she lacked support among women, as one report indicated that Blumenthal took 60 percent of their votes, compared to 39 percent for McMahon.
There was speculation that McMahon’s weak backing from females was partly due to the sexually-suggestive content in her wrestling shows.
Shortly after formally announcing her second bid last fall, she began holding roundtables with women and has launched a Women For Linda Web site.
“I think women and men are interested in the same issues, and that is where are the jobs going to be, where is the economy going to be,” McMahon said.
“However, sometimes women multi-task,” she added. I’ve been a working mom. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. I know exactly what that’s like and also know the pressure when you’re also in business with a full-time job.”
She said during the slow economic recovery more women have faced “pressures” as a result of having “kids who have graduated from college and cannot find a job and have to live at home, or kids that have a job that doesn’t pay enough, so they’re back at home.”
“I think a lot of women are jealous of her,” Seymour Republican Town Committee member Joyce Koslowski, who supports McMahon, said.
“Linda is intelligent and she’s made a lot of money,” she said. “I think some of them are intimidated by her.”
“I had the opportunity to introduce her to a group of professional women and they were very impressed with her,” Scribner said. “I think that will continue to happen as more women get to know her.”