Thursday’s Republican U.S. Senate debate wasn’t a dull one. Christopher Shays took repeated shots at Linda McMahon’s experience as the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment while McMahon answered virtually every attack by focusing on the economy.
The debate, held at the University of Connecticut and hosted by the Courant and Fox 61, was the first since McMahon won the Republican endorsement at the state GOP convention. It also came on the heels of a Quinnipiac University poll, finding that McMahon had closed to within three points of Democratic frontrunner Chris Murphy. Previously, Shays had been more competitive against Murphy.
But the poll also found that McMahon’s experience as a wrestling corporation executive continues to be a liability among voters. And Shays wasn’t pulling punches on the subject during Thursday’s debate.
Meanwhile, McMahon diligently tried to keep her focus to the economy. She argued that the state’s next senator should be someone with job creation experience.
“The experience that is necessary to grow the economy and grow jobs are from the job creators. Not from a professional politician who has been in Congress for 20 years,” McMahon said.
In his response, Shays managed to both compare McMahon to Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner while also bringing up the early deaths of some professional wrestlers.
“The economy is huge, but a job creator? Hugh Hefner is a job creator . . . What types of jobs did you create? What about the 41 people who have lost lives before the age of 50?” Shays asked.
The candidates were asked questions spanning a number of topics, including whether they believe Republicans were waging a war on women’s reproductive rights. Shays said he didn’t think so. A social moderate, he said he believes women have the right to choose whether to have an abortion. But he quickly turned the question into an opportunity to bring up the WWE.
“I think when you force a woman to take off all her clothes in an arena and get down on the ground and bark like a dog, I think that’s an assault on women,” he said, referring to a WWE performance where McMahon’s husband, Vince, makes a female wrestler disrobe and bark like a dog.
“She calls this a story. I call it an outrage,” Shays said.
One of the debate moderators told Shays he had gone off topic and gave McMahon a chance to respond. She said she was proud of the business she had grown and the jobs she created at the WWE, and then turned the conversation back to the economy.
“We have big issues to talk about. We have issues about the fact that people’s homes are being foreclosed upon, rates going up every day. Issues about people being out of work,” she said.
Asked to answer the question regarding women’s reproductive rights, McMahon said she didn’t see a war on women.
“I think that that’s a myth. We do have, I think, the war that’s going on is a war on the people of America because we don’t have them working and our economy is continuing to stagnate,” she said.
McMahon said that she was proud to have helped reform the wrestling industry during her tenure at the WWE. But Shays said that she had ulterior motives for reform.
“Reform the industry? Once you decided to run for the Senate and you didn’t want all those gross things that were happening through your time of the business you’re saying you’re proud of,” he said.
Most of the questionable WWE material was removed from sites like YouTube during the early months of her 2010 campaign. At the time, the WWE said the videos were removed over copyright infringement.
Following the debate, McMahon acknowledged she wasn’t looking to engage Shays on his criticisms of WWE programing.
“I’m really not going to focus on that. I’m just going to keep coming back to the issues because that’s what’s important . . . That’s what’s on the minds of the people of the Connecticut,” McMahon said.
Meanwhile, Shays said McMahon has no answers for her business.
“Compare her values to my values and I can’t imagine hardly any Republican voting for her,” he told reporters.
Shays said he’s not sure whether voters will care about McMahon’s role in the WWE when it comes time to cast primary ballots.
“I care. That’s one of the reasons I’m running,” Shays said. “I believe you need someone with experience to get the job done.”