Why the Conn. Senate race is so surprisingly competitive

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

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.

But Democrats say that now that Murphy is up on the air, the polls are about to change.

“I fundamentally believe that at the end of the day, when all of these reporters go back and write the story of what happened, it’s going to essentially be that Linda McMahon spent a whole lot of money, had a really good August, and ended up losing the race by eight to 10 points,” said Democratic consultant Ed Peavy, who worked for one of Murphy’s primary opponents but is no longer involved in the race.

Democrats describe McMahon as a “flawed candidate” — something that makes their playbook very simple. In the words of a member of the Murphy campaign, they just have to “remind voters of who she really is.”

“She’s the same person that voters rejected almost two years ago,” the staffer said.

The major point of attack is McMahon’s tenure at WWE.

The Murphy campaign began running an ad on Wednesday that attacks McMahon for taking nearly $10 million in tax credits the same year that WWE laid off 10 percent of its employees.

“The actions she’s taken are a problem for people,” Peavy said. “Taking home the money while laying off the staff is something people recoil at.”

“Linda McMahon is running a campaign based on lies and discredited attacks solely designed to distract from her past. Once voters are reminded of what she did as a CEO — including firing 10 percent of her employees, outsourcing jobs, and denying healthcare and disability benefits to workers who risked their lives for her profits – they’ll remember why she’s wrong for Connecticut,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary Shripal Shah.

Finally, Democrats say, there is the simple fact that Connecticut is a generally blue state.

“We could run a perfect race and still lose,” acknowledged the McMahon staffer. “So we have that disadvantage to start.”

Grayson cautioned that this cycle, “Connecticut also seems to be more favorable to Republicans. … The polls showing a closer than expected race between Obama and Romney are a sign that something else is going on in this race. … Maybe it’s the lack of popularity of the governor. Maybe it’s the accumulate attacks on wealthy and Wall Street when the state is the home to so many finance businesses and finance employees.”

But Peavy pointed out that McMahon “underperformed” in 2010 — a year when Republicans overperformed across the country. And in presidential election years, Connecticut historically goes even more Democratic than it does in off-year elections. Assuming a similar split to 2008, when Obama won the state with 60 percent of the vote, McMahon would have to get about 10 percent of Connecticut voters voting for her and Obama on the same ticket, Peavy noted — a difficult feat.

In the end, Peavy said, “I think everyone’s gonna look back and say, Linda McMahon had a very good August.”

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