Connecticut is not a state traditionally thought of as an opportunity for Republicans. But in a surprising turn of events, the Senate race is turning out to be quite competitive, with TV wrestling mogul Linda McMahon running dead even with Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy.
Why and how is a Republican — and specifically McMahon, who lost a Senate race two years ago despite investing millions of dollars in a landmark year for Republicans — making such a strong showing in a state that Obama won by 22 points in 2008?
The answer is that both McMahon and her opponent have changed.
In 2010, McMahon’s campaign portrayed her as a tough-as-nails business executive, in part to compensate for her lack of lawmaking experience. But as more things came out about her business background and her time running World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) with her husband, she ended up looking “cold and heartless,” as one person associated with the campaign put it.
So this year, McMahon’s campaign followed a different strategy.
About a year before the election, McMahon started holding informal coffees with Connecticut voters — particularly women — to just chat, and let Connecticut residents get to know her on a more personal level.
“We think that she’s our greatest asset, one-to-one … people meet her and they like her,” said another person associated with the campaign.
The tactic is working. “McMahon has definitely improved her messaging and, thus, her image for voters,” said Harvard Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson. “She is coming across more as a successful small business owner, a grandmother and a mother.”
McMahon’s opponent has also changed. In 2010, the Democratic candidate was Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who at the time was the popular attorney general. A statewide-elected official, he was well known and generally well liked.
Murphy, by contrast, “isn’t as strong” of a candidate, Grayson said.
“Murphy has only run in a district, and as many congressional candidates find when they try to run statewide, their popularity and name ID ends at their district boundaries,” Grayson said. “Not only that, he’s relatively new, having been elected to Congress in 2006.”
He’s “no Dick Blumenthal,” said the person associated with the McMahon campaign, adding that Murphy had a record of “zero accomplishments,” and was “a partisan, though he claims to be a centrist.”
McMahon’s bottomless pockets haven’t helped that fact. She went on the air attacking and defining Murphy during the primaries — of which both were expected to win from early on.
“McMahon has successfully defined him early,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “McMahon has done a better job of telling her story and building some good will among voters.”
Murphy started running ads later, meaning McMahon was the only one on the air for some time.
It was as though “Murphy took all of this for granted … thinking that just because he had a ‘D’ by his name” he could walk to a victory, said the person involved in the McMahon campaign.
Recently, Murphy has also had to fight back against reports that he was sued for foreclosure in 2007 after failing to make several mortgage payments. The fact alone “is bad enough,” said Grayson, “but also reminds voters of former Sen. Chris Dodd’s dealings with Countryside Mortgage” — the issue Dodd left office over.
“We have controlled the narrative of the race,” said the person associated with McMahon’s campaign.