Surprising new poll throws Conn. Senate race into spotlight

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

A surprising new poll of the Connecticut Senate race shows Republican candidate Linda McMahon not only leading the primary field, but within striking distance of the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Chris Murphy.

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder and 2010 Republican Senate candidate, leading her primary opponent, former Rep. Chris Shays, by a whopping 29 percent.

Equally surprising was that in a trial heat with the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Chris Murphy, McMahon trails by only 3 points, 43 percent to Murphy’s 46 percent. Shays, on the other hand, gets beaten 45-37.

“I’ve got to tell you, that Quinnipiac poll got my attention,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor of the Cook Political Report, who is responsible for ranking Senate races based on their likely partisan outcome. “So I’m watching it a little more carefully.”

McMahon was one of several tea party candidates in 2010 that won primaries but was unable to win in the general election. Shays’ major argument against McMahon is just that: she is not a viable candidate in November. But that argument seems to be undermined by the poll.

Certainly, Duffy said, it “isn’t resonating.”

Karl Rove, who attended a fundraiser to support Shays Thursday night, maintains that McMahon remains an unrealistic choice for a nominee. (RELATED: Political roundup: Key House and Senate races, simplified)

Rove is one of several politicos who have come in to help Shays, along with Sen. John McCain and Sen. Roy Blunt. The endorsements are largely seen as favors for a friend.

“With all due respect, [McMahon] ran last time and had a 40 mile per hour wind behind her back and came up short. I want to win this race, and I think the guy who has got the ability to reach across lines and draw together the kind of coalition you need to draw together in Connecticut is Chris Shays,” Rove said Thursday.

Comparing this race to the 2010 Senate race is comparing “apples and oranges,” said Chris LaCivita, an adviser to the McMahon campaign.

“It’s a different campaign operation, it’s a different team, and to a certain extent it’s a [different] candidate,” LaCivita told The Daily Caller. “You learn more from your losses than you do your wins.”

A big change, said one person familiar with the McMahon campaign, is how the campaign is defining McMahon. In 2010, the campaign portrayed her as the “tough CEO” to offset her lack of political experience. Instead, the portrayal “backfired” and ended up just making her look “cold” and “heartless.”

This time, the campaign is working to introduce voters to the softer side of McMahon, and portraying her as a candidate with whom people can identify.

Murphy has yet to run a television ad, so the campaign is working to define her before her potential opponent can do so. Duffy pointed out that when Murphy does start running television spots, he will likely widen his lead over McMahon as he increases his name recognition.

LaCivita said the campaign’s internal polling has found similar results to the Quinnipiac poll.

“Any objective political person looking at the survey and the body of evidence will come to the conclusion that it’s nearly impossible for Chris Shays,” LaCivita said. “Difficult is the understatement of the year. Having their work cut out for them is the understatement of the year.”

Looming in the background of the election is the threat of a libel suit by McMahon’s company, the WWE, against a columnist who compared WWE programming to pornography. The company has been aggressively and vocally defending its integrity, which as the Connecticut Mirror pointed out, has kept the media focused elsewhere. McMahon left WWE in 2009 before her last Senate run, so she has a little more distance from the issue, but still, the person familiar with the campaign said, “it’s not helpful.”

Equally unhelpful for the Republican candidate is the fact that Connecticut is a decidedly blue state. The Cook Political Report currently ranks it as “likely Democratic” — and after the primary, the Republican nominee will face an uphill battle.

“I think this is a long way before getting moved to a more competitive column, and I’m certainly not going to do it on the basis of a single poll,” Duffy said. “But it did get my interest, it got my attention, now I’m going be paying attention to other numbers that are coming out.”

The Shays campaign did not respond to request for comment.

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