Republican wrestling mogul Linda McMahon and Democrat Congressman Chris Murphy squared off in the first Connecticut Senate debate last weekend. Hours later, the sound bite flitting around the local newscasts was, pardon the expression, a smackdown:
After Murphy accused McMahon of plagiarizing her jobs plan from various conservative groups, McMahon opened fire. "Shame on you," she said, glaring across the dais. "As I said, you thought this campaign was going to be a coronation because you're a Democrat running in Connecticut. Now you're in a serious race with a serious woman. And you are desperate."
It was a good line for McMahon and one sure to have local Republicans, tired of liberal hegemony in deep-blue Connecticut, cheering loudly. But it was also emblematic of the McMahon-Murphy race, which has become arguably the grittiest and most vitriolic Senate contest in the country.
It's not normally this way. Connecticut Democrats usually go up against Washington General Republicans with pitiful odds. Even the 2010 election, when McMahon ran for Senate the first time, turned into a Democrat blowout after disgraced Senator Chris Dodd bowed out and the popular Richard Blumenthal jumped in. In a year of Tea Party energy, the Land of Steady Habits resisted, even replacing its retiring Republican governor with inept Democrat Dannel Malloy.
More of the same was expected this year. Early polls had Murphy winning comfortably with Quinnipiac giving him a 15-point lead in March. Then in late August, Rasmussen released a poll with McMahon leading by three. A few days later, a Quinnipiac survey found the same thing. McMahon was suddenly, marginally, the frontrunner.
Since then the polls have been all over the place, with Murphy leading by six points one day and McMahon leading by one the next. But if the numbers are turbulent, two things have remained consistent.
The first is the scathing political warfare, waged for months now in relentless attack ads. The deep-pocketed McMahon, who dumped $50 million into her last Senate race, has spent millions more this year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just shelled out $320,000 in ads to help the floundering Murphy. According to Travis Ridout, a professor at Washington State University, $10.6 million was spent on ads in the Connecticut Senate race between June and September alone.
The second is Murphy's surprising weakness as a political candidate. The three-term congressman was initially touted as the state's next bright young leader. An early ad showed him scrappily shoveling his walk after a New England snowstorm before knocking on a door and pitching himself as a "new progressive voice" while javelin-sized icicles melted dangerously in the background.
Since then the parka-wearing everyman has been hit by a blizzard of news stories questioning his ethics and competence. He was sued for not paying rent on his apartment in 2003. He faced foreclosure on his mortgage at a new property in 2007. Allegations arose that he received a Dodd-esque sweetheart deal from Webster Bank during the foreclosure proceedings. He repeatedly missed tax payments on his house and car.
All this, along with Murphy's 24% attendance record for congressional committee hearings, changed the narrative. A mosaic formed of a sloppy and lazy congressman bumbling through his own finances during a time of unprecedented national debt. The boyish door-knocker was really the ineffectual apparatchik with the 98% party-line voting record. McMahon capitalized on this, and even filed an ethics complaint over the Webster Bank deal. If the polls are any indication, it's money well-spent.
If Murphy's weaknesses are a surprise, then McMahon's demonstrated strengths are downright stunning. She emerged as a punch line three years ago; Connecticut's version of Jesse Ventura doomed to lose to former congressman Rob Simmons in the primary. Instead she beat Simmons handily. And while she was defeated by Dick Blumenthal, she built a powerful campaign infrastructure that has served her well this year.
Some of McMahon's success comes, of course, from her ability to spend massive amounts of money. But her appeal is deeper than her pockets. McMahon has a personal energy that works well in one-on-one interactions. She connects in conversations, coming off as more of a concerned grandmother than a wrestling magnate. She's developed a particular rapport with women, and is only six points behind Chris Murphy with female voters, a major shift from when she ran in 2010.
And she's left an indelible mark on Connecticut politics, managing to jam the revolving doors of both political parties. Her victory over quintessential establishmentarian Rob Simmons, a lousy Republican who co-sponsored card check and cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, was felt throughout the state GOP. Now she's giving Murphy, who's been patiently waiting his turn to advance, a real fight. Not bad for a former wrestling CEO.
Her next challenge is to win a debate. Despite her quip about Murphy's coronation, McMahon lost their last showdown as Murphy hammered her on policy specifics. McMahon used too many generalities and occasionally seemed tongue-tied. She needs to retaliate and make a full-throated case next time. From Murphy's proud vote for cap-and-trade, to his personal role in crafting the House version of Obamacare, to his litany of votes against spending cuts, there's plenty for her to work with.
Even with a glowing debate performance, McMahon may very well lose big. No one should ever underestimate Connecticut's love for suffocating liberalism. But likewise, no one should ever underestimate McMahon. It's one of the most irritating quotes of all time but I'm going to use it just this once: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
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