U.S. Senate race one of twists, turns, changing leads

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, campaigns in New London Friday, left, and Republican Linda McMahon hands out candy at the Mystic Aquarium Halloween party Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, campaigns in New London Friday, left, and Republican Linda McMahon hands out candy at the Mystic Aquarium Halloween party Wednesday. Day photos

Hartford - It was the most memorable line in a U.S. Senate race with few memorable lines.

Linda McMahon, the wrestling entertainment doyenne in her second go for a Senate seat, turned from the camera during the first one-on-one debate last month and looked her opponent, Congressman Chris Murphy, straight in the eyes.

"Shame on you," she scolded. "You thought this campaign was going to be a coronation because you're a Democrat running in the state of Connecticut. Now you're in a serious race with a serious woman, and you are desperate."

Murphy recoiled visibly with a nervous grin.

The three-term congressman scored a few points that day on policy particulars and the origins of McMahon's much-touted jobs plan, but he couldn't refute the essence of the taunt: that the 39-year-old Murphy could be the next Democratic Senate nominee in a deep-blue state to be embarrassed by a Republican.

Now, a month later and two days to go before Election Day, their contest to succeed the retiring Joe Lieberman has a much different feel.

McMahon, 64, has lost her post-primary lead in the opinion polls, once as high as 3 percentage points. She now trails by 6 points in the latest Quinnipiac University and Rasmussen polls.

The Oct. 24 Q-poll found that McMahon's unfavorable rating - the bane of her failed 2010 Senate bid - is on the rise, despite efforts to recast her image and appeal to women voters. Two years ago, McMahon was the tough corporate executive who thrived in the male-dominated wrestling world. In 2012, she is a warmer, grandmotherly business expert who knows how to jumpstart an economy. The McMahon campaign disputes any notion that her late summer momentum has petered out.

"Our internal polling still shows us with a slight lead in this race, as it has consistently for the last several weeks," said McMahon's campaign spokesman, Todd Abrajano. "The difference is going to be made in which campaign gets their voters out to the polls, and we are quite confident. Linda McMahon's supporters are much more enthusiastic for her than Chris Murphy's supporters are for him."

The outcome Tuesday could determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate. There are 23 Democratic and 10 Republican seats up for election this year. Democrats hold a thin 51-47 majority over the Republicans, with two independents. Lieberman is one of those independents.

Connecticut has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. won re-election in 1982. The state's five-member congressional delegation is all Democrats.

A different race

McMahon holds the record for the most personal spending by any Senate candidate - a growing total of at least $92 million over two campaign cycles.

The Greenwich multimillionaire spent $50 million of her family's fortune in 2010, her first attempt at elected office. Richard Blumenthal, the state's longtime attorney general, overcame bad publicity over misstatements about his Vietnam-era military service record to trounce McMahon by 12 percentage points.

McMahon has loaned $42.6 million to her 2012 campaign, according to a New York Times' analysis of campaign finance records.

McMahon and Murphy won their respective Aug. 14 primaries by wide margins. McMahon defeated Fairfield County's former Republican congressman Christopher Shays, and Murphy bested the former Democratic secretary of the state, Susan Bysiewicz.

In the weeks following the primary, a new narrative emerged, one about how well the Republican was doing.

McMahon, after reintroducing herself all winter and spring, unveiled a series of ads critical of Murphy's congressional committee attendance record. According to research compiled by McMahon's campaign that Murphy hasn't disputed, he missed 74 percent of all his committee meetings since his January 2007 swearing-in.

A string of unflattering disclosures then surfaced about Murphy's personal financial history: late rent, mortgage and vehicle tax payments from 1998 through 2007.

"I would say that from the day the primary was over until really the end of September and beginning of October, Murphy ran a terrible race," Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report in Washington, said last week.

"He was not prepared for the attacks she waged against him," Duffy said. "The (attendance) stuff he never saw coming, and the stuff that they should have seen coming - the missed rent and mortgage payments - they didn't have an answer to, and they let the story drag on."

Chris Healy, former state Republican Party chairman, said Murphy underestimated the challenges of running as a statewide candidate.

"It took him a while to get out of the blocks and realize that he was not Dick Blumenthal, that he did not have a statewide brand," Healy said.

Instead, it was McMahon who seized the opportunity to introduce Murphy to voters outside his 5th Congressional District.

"She, with her resources, had a wonderful political opportunity to basically define for the voters on a statewide basis who Chris Murphy was," said Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. "What they saw, they obviously didn't like."

With his campaign struggling and supporters growing nervous, Murphy attended the Democratic National Convention in early September.

The Democratic establishment mobilized. Murphy's campaign experienced an infusion of new staffers, campaign ads and financial contributions. Independent expenditures for anti-McMahon attack ads has come from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as well as Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Campaign finance reports through Oct. 17 show Murphy has received $9.3 million in contributions. Of that, $1.4 million is from political action committees.

Altogether, outside groups have spent about $8.5 million so far in support of Murphy, The New York Times reported on Saturday.

According to several Republicans, the cost of the rushed assistance for Murphy was that he had to hand over the keys.

"He had the campaign taken away from him," Healy said. "The campaign is now being run by Washington people, which makes him completely a creature of Washington."

Murphy campaign spokesman, Eli Zupnick, said a "beefing up" did occur, but dismissed the notion that Murphy relinquished control.

"It was a campaign that got additional support and staff, as any campaign would do in the last two months," said Zupnick, who was part of the September wave of reinforcements.

Family matters

McMahon's campaign was caught off-guard by the mid-September disclosure in The Day of Linda and Vince McMahon's personal bankruptcy records from 1976. The couple's early financial struggles before the wrestling business success has been central to McMahon's rags-to-riches campaign narrative.

The newly revealed records showed nearly $1 million in claims from 26 creditors. McMahon quickly announced that she would repay voluntarily, with interest, the private, individual creditors and labor unions on the list. She was under no legal obligation to do so.

Her campaign declined last week to say how much money McMahon paid the former creditors this fall.

McMahon stepped down as WWE's chief executive officer in September 2009 for her first try at the Senate. Her husband, Vince McMahon, the current chairman and CEO, is the face of the family's global wrestling empire and a celebrity in the entertainment world.

But unlike Murphy's wife, Cathy Holahan, Vince McMahon has kept far away from his spouse's campaign rallies and meet-and-greets.

The most recent Quinnipiac poll showed 59 percent of likely Connecticut voters with a negative opinion of professional wrestling and 24 percent with a positive view.

"If Vince McMahon showed up at one of his wife's campaign events, what would his presence mean to most people?" said Vincent Moscardelli, assistant professor of American politics at the University of Connecticut. "Would it remind them of the McMahons' long marriage, their commitment to one another and their strong nuclear family, or would it remind people of professional wrestling? Given his celebrity, I think it would probably be the latter."

Murphy and McMahon will each have two lines on Tuesday's ballot, thanks to cross-endorsements: Murphy by the Connecticut Working Families Party and McMahon by the state's Independent Party.

McMahon upset some Democrats and a few Republicans with recent ads that urge inner-city minorities to vote for President Barack Obama and then for her, on the Independent Party line. Her campaign also has canvassing operations in the state's largest cities.

"We are, unlike many other previous Republican statewide campaigns, actively doing get-out-the-vote efforts in all the cities in the state - Waterbury, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport," Abrajano, her campaign spokesman, said Friday. "Are we gonna win in those cities? Probably not. But we're going to do much better than Republican campaigns have done statewide."

Anthony Basilica, former chairman of New London's Democratic Town Committee, believes that despite her snappy opening line, McMahon lost more voters than she gained from last month's four debates.

"Once she got away from her talking points, she didn't know what to say," said Basilica, also a former city councilor.

He predicts Murphy will be victorious Tuesday, but with a much narrower margin than Democrats once expected.

Basilica noted the absence in this year's race of any TV ads highlighting the more provocative wrestling ring scenes from the years before the WWE softened its advisory rating from TV-14 to PG in 2008.

"Murphy has not really responded when he needed to, and how he could have," Basilica said. "You gotta get in there and you gotta fight. If he had done that from the beginning and defended himself, it probably wouldn't be as close as it will be."

j.reindl@theday.com

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, campaigns Friday at Muddy Waters Café on Bank Street in New London.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, campaigns Friday at Muddy Waters Café on Bank Street in New London. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
Republican candidate Linda McMahon, right foreground, hands out candy Wednesday at the Mystic Aquarium Halloween party.
Republican candidate Linda McMahon, right foreground, hands out candy Wednesday at the Mystic Aquarium Halloween party. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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