GOP Senate candidate works to connect with individual voters, rein in advertising
East Lyme - Barbara Birmingham, a prominent East Lyme Republican, was no fan of Linda McMahon during her first run for U.S. Senate.
"She came to our town committee and I thought she was a bit too aggressive," Birmingham said recently, "and that whole WWE thing was bothering me."
So Birmingham supported McMahon's opponent in the 2010 Republican primary, former Congressman Rob Simmons of Stonington. But since then, her feelings have warmed considerably.
Birmingham said she now can see sides to McMahon's personality that before weren't always apparent. And she has new thoughts on McMahon's stewardship of WWE: "She started a business, she kept it going, she hired people."
"This year I really like her a lot," Birmingham said as she stood before a pile of "Women for Linda" T-shirts inside the candidate's new East Lyme campaign office. "I find she's toned down a bit, she's mellowed."
Indeed, the 63-year-old Greenwich resident absorbed many lessons from 2010, when her self-financed and advertising-reliant campaign rocketed to victory in the primary but fell far short on Election Day with a big loss to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the former state attorney general.
The gentler and easier-to-like McMahon of 2012 is on a strategic quest to convert the skeptics - particularly women - to true believers by November. Relaunched and rebranded, the candidate is making diligent efforts this year to connect with voters and stands to benefit as passions cool over the wrestling controversies that dogged her first Senate run.
She won party leaders' endorsements at the spring convention and enjoys a nearly 30-point poll lead on her Republican opponent in the Aug. 14 primary, former Fourth District Congressman Christopher Shays.
That same Quinnipiac University poll shows McMahon narrowing the gap between herself and the Democratic frontrunner, Congressman Chris Murphy, to a mere 3 percentage points.
But she was once only 3 points behind Blumenthal.
McMahon has aired more television commercials than all the other candidates in this election cycle, yet so far is avoiding her carpet bombing-like approach to advertising in 2010.
"A lot of people that I know have been asking about her because they're so taken with the new ads on TV," said Birmingham, a former selectwoman. "She's so much more approachable in those ads compared to the ones two years ago."
McMahon brought in an entirely new staff of advisers and took to a campaign style that emphasizes personal interactions. Her schedule is filled with small gatherings and one-on-ones with prospective voters, close settings where her charm can shine.
"I'm more effective when I can meet with people in groups and talk with them and let them talk to me," McMahon told The Day.
Two years ago, McMahon's image was that of a tough executive who thrived in the outsized and testosterone-drenched business of professional wrestling entertainment.
But her greatest credential as a candidate - helping to grow Stamford-based WWE from a regional enterprise to a multinational company - also was her biggest liability, with controversies erupting over steroid abuse in the industry, the portrayal of women and the mentally handicapped, and the many early deaths of performers.
Also damaging was the replay of old WWE videos in which members of the McMahon family played themselves in melodramatic ring skits. One infamous scene had her husband, Vince McMahon, ordering a young woman to disrobe before the crowd, get on all fours and bark like a dog. In another, Linda delivers a swift kick to Vince's groin.
Opinion polls throughout the 2010 campaign showed McMahon struggling to appeal to women. As the nonstop TV ads and voluminous mailings continued into the fall, some voters were turned off.
She lost by 12 percentage points to Blumenthal, who also suffered bad publicity, in his case over misstatements he made about his Vietnam-era military service record. From start to finish, McMahon blew through nearly $50 million.
Since formally announcing last fall that she would run for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman's seat, McMahon has visited more than 200 state businesses and done 120 small gatherings called "Conversations with Linda." The majority of these have been all-women affairs with 20 to 70 people, according to the campaign.
"We find that the more people interact with Linda, the more people support her," Corry Bliss, her campaign manager, said.
McMahon also has tempered her spending. Campaign filings show the campaign had spent $9 million this election cycle as of June 30, less than half of what it had spent by that point in 2010.
But to win as a Republican in a dark-blue state during a presidential year, McMahon needs to convince thousands of Obama voters to send her to Washington instead of a Democrat - Murphy faces Susan Bysiewicz, former secretary of the state, in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.
McMahon said in a recent interview that many Connecticut residents are anxious about the economy and ready for someone with a business background and a different skills set than the typical politician.
"We certainly did not improve things since our last election," she said. "In fact, I think they're worse. Our debt is worse, our unemployment is still above 8 percent, our deficit continues to grow, and so none of the things that I think we needed to do in order to preserve America's promise for opportunity we've not done."
Staffers tell how McMahon can function on minimal sleep and is up by 5:30 most mornings for days filled with a half-dozen or more campaign events, gatherings, festivals and meet-and-greets.
She often will receive a celebrity reception when out in public, with fans seeking photographs and autographed "Linda 2012" bumper stickers.
Key to McMahon's victory strategy is the traditional "ground game" of door knocking and phone bank work by staff and volunteers from the campaign's eight field offices across the state. For a "Super Saturday" event last month, the campaign set a goal of knocking on 10,000 doors and completing 10,000 phone calls.
"Well, we made 25,000 phone calls and we knocked on 13,000 doors," McMahon announced at the July 26 grand opening of her East Lyme office, the former Video World on Flanders Road.
She told an adoring crowd of about 60 supporters that even Democrats are now getting on board: "A lot of Democrats are telling me, 'I'm voting for you. I never voted for a Republican before.'"
"And you ain't seen nothing yet," she continued. "We need this ground game, we need good messaging in our commercials, we need good messaging in our brochures that are going out. But none of that will mean anything if we don't get people to the polls."
McMahon considers her Republican opponent, Shays, and her likely Democratic opponent, Murphy, to be "career politicians" with whom voters have lost patience.
Shays served in the General Assembly from 1975 to 1987 and in the 4th Congressional District from 1987 to 2008. Murphy spent eight years in the General Assembly before unseating former Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson in 2006.
"My feeling on that issue is we need a blend and a mix." McMahon said. "We need doctors and we need lawyers and we need housewives and we need educators as part of our representation, but we don't have enough business people.
"Anyone who's running for office and who comes from the private sector and represents the people of the state - that's exactly what our forefathers envisioned, that there would be those of the people to represent the people," she said.
A North Carolina native, Linda Edwards was an only child and has described meeting her future husband, Vince, while attending Catholic Mass. The McMahons married in 1966 when Linda was 17. She graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in French. They moved to New Britain in 1972, and Vince McMahon was a promoter and announcer for Capitol Wrestling Corp., a regional wrestling firm largely owned by his father.
Then in 1976, when Linda was pregnant with their second child, the McMahons declared bankruptcy as a result of bad investments and Vince's failed promotions, which included an unsuccessful jump by Evel Knievel across Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Lenders foreclosed on their house and repossessed their car.
McMahon has highlighted that early stretch of financial troubles during both campaigns as examples of how she and Vince, although now multimillionaires, have known hardship. The 2010 campaign put the size of their 1970s bankruptcy filing at about $1 million.
In 1982, Vince bought his father's wrestling business, renamed it the World Wrestling Federation, and he and Linda built a global franchise with lucrative television contracts, licensing deals and a famed "WrestleMania" franchise.
Linda McMahon became the company's president and chief executive officer in 1993 after a grand jury indicted Vince on three counts of conspiring to distribute steroids to wrestlers. Two years earlier, a company doctor had been sent to prison for selling steroids to wrestlers.
An investigation by The Day during her first campaign brought to light how Linda McMahon once directed a company executive to alert the doctor that he was under federal investigation.
Two of the charges against Vince McMahon were dismissed by a New York judge on jurisdictional grounds; he was acquitted on the third.
Linda McMahon stepped down as CEO in September 2009 to pursue the Senate seat of Democrat Christopher Dodd, who was considered vulnerable in 2010. Dodd later chose to not seek re-election.
The McMahons' 2010 joint tax filing showed the couple earning $30.6 million that year, almost entirely from investment dividends taxed at 15 percent. She has promised to release their 2011 tax return once it is complete.
'My business plan'
Early this year, McMahon came out with a six-point plan for revving up the nation's economy. It centers on regulation rollbacks and middle-class and business tax cuts, to be paid for by closing tax loopholes. It calls for a 1 percent annual reduction in federal spending and a permanent end to the estate tax as "the death tax is the cruelest of all taxes."
"If you want to accomplish something in business, you have your business plan. This is sort of like my business plan," McMahon said.
Recent campaign ads declare that her plan, if enacted, would save the average Connecticut family of four $500 a month. However, a detailed analysis of the plan by The Hartford Courant put the monthly savings at just over $80 for that average family, based on current tax rates.
Campaign records show McMahon paid $56,527 to John Dunham and Associates, a New York-based consultant also known by the moniker Guerrilla Economics, to develop the plan.
Last month, McMahon submitted thousands of signatures to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to petition for a second line on the November ballot under the Independent Party.
McMahon said she wants to neutralize any advantage that her Democratic opponent could receive by having two lines on the ballot with a Connecticut Working Families Party endorsement.
Shays denounced her two-line strategy as weakening the Connecticut Republican Party. He also has criticized McMahon for tightly scripted debate performances that mostly shuffle talking points, and for refusing to sit down with newspaper editorial boards for in-depth interviews.
The former congressman has presented his own jobs plan that, among other things, would lower tax rates, end loopholes and eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit, "which has morphed into a welfare system that should never be part of the tax code."
Overall, he and McMahon have similar stances on the issues. Both favor legalized abortion and extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts, and both vow to "repeal and replace" the national health care law.
But Shays says the numbers in McMahon's plan don't add up, and he doubts she would have the know-how or relationships in Washington to get it passed if elected.
"She is going to be clueless about what to do and how to do it, particularly how to do it," Shays said recently. "So when she says she's going to fight for her plan, I don't even know what that means."
McMahon counters that her plan offers something for both Democrats and Republicans. "Folks really like my plan," she said.
Additionally, the wrestling mogul believes that being new to Washington is more of an asset than a liability.
"I think someone from the outside has an opportunity because there is no baggage when you come in," McMahon said.