Linda McMahon is getting personal—and it may be working. So said a University of Connecticut political science professor about the latest in McMahon’s campaign against Democrat Chris Murphy for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat.
McMahon, who’s vying against U.S. Rep. Murphy for retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s seat, ran an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. The former wrestling CEO lost that race to former Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
UConn political science professor Vincent Moscardelli said that experience is helping her now.
“One of the differences between this time and last time is she’s now done this before. In many ways you can argue she’s never stopped,” Moscardelli said. “It would be surprising if she weren’t running a stronger campaign.”
As a Republican running in a liberal-leaning state, McMahon this year has tried to make the race about two individuals rather than two political parties, he said.
“She’s going to take advantage of every opportunity to personalize this race,” Moscardelli said. “[Murphy] wants this race to be reduced to a Democrat running against a Republican. She wants the race to be between a successful businesswoman and Chris Murphy.”
The Democrats’ strategy has rested in part on trying to tie McMahon to the positions of national Republicans. On Monday, the focus was on women’s reproductive health. The Murphy campaign issued a press release criticizing McMahon for indicating she would support an amendment that allows employers to choose not to provide insurance policies covering free contraception.
“The Blunt Amendment would deny women access to birth control and basic health care services like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings from their employers—and Linda McMahon supports it,” Murphy’s spokeswoman Taylor Lavender said. “McMahon says she’s pro-choice, but she’s not. Her support for the Blunt Amendment would cut off access to critical non controversial health services for tens of thousands of women in Connecticut.”
McMahon has said that whole issue seemed to be focused on contraception when she believes it was really an issue about the First Amendment.
Todd Abrajano, McMahon’s spokesman, said voters are more concerned with the economy and putting food on their tables than they are the about the Blunt Amendment or abortion. Most don’t even know what the amendment is, he said.
“I think the Democrats are extremely concerned because they’re looking at a race they thought was in the bag and they’re beginning to understand that people like what they see in Linda McMahon,” Abrajano said.
An Aug. 28 Quinnipiac poll found voters more concerned with the economy than women’s reproductive rights. Fifty-eight percent of likely voters said the economy would be an “extremely important” factor in their vote for president, meanwhile 31 percent said women’s reproductive health issues would be extremely important.
However, despite the gap in the poll, Moscardelli said focusing on social issues may be an effective campaign strategy for Democrats, at least in Connecticut.
“There’s no single issue more important than the economy in determining an election but it exists within a broader context,” he said.
The struggling economy may hurt President Barack Obama, and by extension lower ticket Democrats like Murphy, but it doesn’t change the basic political leaning of Connecticut, which is blue, Moscardelli said. And a perceived “war on women” could turn out to be an effective device for mobilizing the Democratic base in Connecticut, he said.
“There’s a difference between one’s position and the intensity with which one holds that position,” he said. “It’s not just what percent of people support you, it’s what percent is motivated to go out and vote for you.”
During a conference call with reporters Monday, Christian Miron, the executive director of NARAL Pro‑Choice Connecticut, said anecdotal evidence suggests voters are concerned about women’s health.
“I don’t know what could get an individual more fired up than having their fundamental freedoms restricted. I think it’s an extremely salient issue for voters this fall, especially here in Connecticut. We’re a progressive state,” Miron said.
The renewed focus on women’s rights is likely a welcome change of pace for the Murphy camp, which spent the last few days dealing with recently publicized accounts of Murphy’s financial troubles.
On Sunday the McMahon campaign filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleging Murphy received preferential treatment from Webster Bank when they agreed to give him a 4.9 percent interest rate on a $43,000 home equity line of credit in 2008 despite Murphy defaulting on his mortgage in 2007.
Moscardelli said the implication Murphy received some sort of “sweetheart deal” from Webster was bad news for the candidate who’s still struggling to define himself to voters before McMahon does.
“He did not want to be talking about his mortgage and missed rent payments after the Democratic National Convention,” Moscardelli said. “Without a doubt it knocked him off track.”
However, Moscardelli said the Murphy campaign responded well by getting Webster Bank to issue a statement denying allegations the candidate got any sort of special treatment.
Moscardelli said it was too soon in the race to make a prediction about how things will turn out in November. He said Connecticut’s Senate open seat will take on enormous significance for Democrats looking to retain control of the chamber and Republicans looking to take it.
For that reason it’s likely the state will see a huge influx of money coming from third party organizations like Super PACs. That could be good news for Murphy, whose campaign has struggled to compete with McMahon’s largely self-funded campaign. But it could also present problems for the candidate, he said.
“The problem is you can very quickly lose control of your message,” when that message is being dictated in part by third party groups, Moscardelli said.
While McMahon has the money to run ads and mailers to offset any unwanted shifts in the campaign narrative, Murphy could find himself boxed in by them, he said. With the stakes so high, Moscardelli predicted the race would get messy before November.
“It’s going to get personal and it’s going to get nasty,” he said.