We’ve entered the phase of the election season where the panic sets in for flagging campaigns. Mitt Romney’s been having a rotten month, and Republicans everywhere are nervously edging toward the exits. And yet here in Connecticut, Linda McMahon, a candidate who is very much like Romney in many ways, is enjoying an autumn surge.
Chris Murphy, the once heavily-favored Democrat whose supporters are suddenly panicking, is facing a surprising turn of events given that the news media and much of the political establishment have been writing off McMahon for years.
It turns out that Linda McMahon learned some important lessons from her listless 2010 disaster, while Romney doesn’t seem to have learned from 2008 at all. McMahon has leveraged a softer image and nearly eighteen months of nonstop campaigning into the kind of upset-in-the-making that has Democrats suddenly worried. Another sign of the new, more politically adept McMahon was her quick denunciation of Romney’s “47 percent” comments. Never mind that back when she launched her 2012 campaign, she used a very similar talking point, saying “I’d like to see everyone pay their fair share . . . Forty-seven percent of the people today don’t pay any taxes, so let’s have a fair tax code where everybody pays their taxes.” She also uses a lot of the same “job creators” language that Romney uses, and parries attacks on her unsightly corporate record as attacks on success. These two relatively moderate New England Republicans seem tailor-made for one another, which is probably why she was so quick to distance herself after the Romney tape leaked.
The difference between McMahon and Romney is that her political ambition is something she didn’t inherit, and she is a lot more disciplined and tightly controlled. And yet McMahon’s plans and history suggest the same kind of contempt for the masses. The McMahons made their fortune selling thoughtless spectacle to a mass audience, what a friend of mine once called “soap opera for men.” At its height, the WWE was brainless entertainment, full of sex and violence, and both McMahons participated as caricatures in the ring. McMahon is now trying to erase that lurid past, as if we wouldn’t somehow remember how she made her money. Her economic plans, which are supposedly the reason people would vote for her, are as thin as air beyond the attractive bullet points. Her 2010 campaign had even fewer specifics, an attempt to win an election with the vague feel-good smile of a Jodi Rell. She sells the quick fix, the easy, moderately conservative solution to our economic problems. Her plans call for middle class tax cuts, small business tax cuts, deregulation of some kind, a small spending reduction every year, and energy independence. It feels good, and never mind that it doesn’t add up at all. It’s candy. It’s endorphins. It’s wrestling. And it’s fake.
That’s the big problem that both Romney and McMahon share: who are they, really? Who is the real Linda McMahon? The millionaire whose yacht is called “Sexy Bitch”? The dedicated job-creator? The woman egging on the crowds in the ring? The hard-working businesswoman who wants a better world for her grandchildren? The woman whose company has been accused of looking the other way as wrestlers abused steroids, sometimes with fatal consequences? Mitt Romney isn’t any clearer. I can’t tell whether the sneering plutocrat, the moderate from 2002 and 1996, or some other man is authentic. Maybe this is just a side effect of modern campaigns, that we never really know what untested candidates will do until they get into office and do it.
Maybe that’s an opening for Murphy, and a way for him to claw his way back into this race. He’s been in Congress since 2007, where he’s been a reliable, relatively liberal voice in the House. It’s not difficult to see where he’d come down on a huge range of issues, while with McMahon there’s no way to be sure. That assumes voters want specifics, though. McMahon is betting they don’t, which is why her campaign hasn’t been focusing on how Murphy has voted and what issues he supports. Instead, she spent the crucial time after the primary hitting him on being absent from committee meetings and his debt troubles from years past. It’s worked shockingly well.
McMahon has plenty of weaknesses, but so far she’s kept them from dragging her down again, and is in remarkably good position to become Connecticut’s first Republican senator since Lowell Weicker lost to Joe Lieberman in 1988. The irony here is that in the end she may be relying upon Mitt Romney to put her over the top. A huge margin for Obama in Connecticut may sweep Murphy into office, and with the way the Romney campaign is collapsing right now that’s more than likely. How fitting it would be if Romney, like McMahon in so many ways, was her ultimate undoing?
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.