McMahon advances Senate bid, Simmons ready to move forward

Linda McMahon acknowledges supporters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cromwell Tuesday night after winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. McMahon will face Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the November election.
Linda McMahon acknowledges supporters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cromwell Tuesday night after winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. McMahon will face Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the November election. Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Buy Photo

With "Eye of the Tiger" on full blast and supporters waving red and white pom-poms, the ballroom at the Crowne Plaza in Cromwell Tuesday night felt much like a sporting event - a professional wrestling match, even - as Linda McMahon took the stage to declare victory in the race for the Republican Party's Senate nomination.

"This was a great victory, but remember, this is a three-round smackdown event," said state Senate minority leader pro tempore Len Fasano, who introduced McMahon. "The first round was the nomination, and we got that, right?

"The second round was this primary, and we just put that to bed. And the third round - and the main event - is November 2, when we elect Linda McMahon to the United States Senate."

McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, said she would bring business experience to Washington.

"That kind of experience, that kind of understanding is sorely lacking in Washington," McMahon said. "And we're going to send a senator to Washington who understands that. And for the first time in decades, we're going to send a Republican senator to Washington."

McMahon said she would challenge the political establishment in Washington and work to counter policies enacted by President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress.

"I believe the direction our leaders are taking us is threatening not only our well-being but the well-being of future generations," McMahon said. "I think you'll agree with me that the answer isn't bigger government, it's smaller government. The answer isn't billion-dollar bailouts, it's less spending."

McMahon thanked challengers Rob Simmons and Peter Schiff and invited them "to join us as we fight to win this seat for all the people of Connecticut."

In the end, Rob Simmons stood in the glare of television lights at a podium set up in front of his house in Stonington, a sheaf of papers in his hand.

It was his concession speech, but even though he wore his reading glasses, he never looked at it.

"About a year and a half ago, my family and friends decided in this place that our senior senator had lost his way," he began, "and that there was an opportunity for me to run against him."

And then Simmons recounted a short history of his race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, and then, when Dodd announced his retirement, against Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Then, in a challenge from within his own party, McMahon won the Republican nomination.

McMahon's victory Tuesday ended the former congressman's bid to carry the Republican party's banner into the election for the U.S. Senate and his shoestring run against a candidate who has vowed to spend as much as $50 million of her own money on her campaign.

Tuesday evening, Simmons said the latest poll numbers showed "we continue to be competitive against" Blumenthal.

"But those numbers don't count unless you win the primary, and the primary is tonight, and the numbers are not trending in our direction tonight," he said, "so I have called Mrs. McMahon on the phone, and I have conceded the race to her and I've congratulated her team and her for her great victory, and I have pledged my support for them in the coming months."

In answer to questions, he said he has ruled out an independent challenge and has essentially endorsed McMahon.

"I have run a rigorous and vigorous campaign on the issues; I believe she has done the same. ... In some areas we've agreed and some we've disagreed, but that's what campaigns are all about. ... But now is not the time to continue the conflict; now is the time to bind up the wounds and move forward."

And, finally, asked what's next for Rob Simmons, he said, "Rob Simmons will be mixing a martini tonight. And that's why he's having the press conference here in front of his house, so he does not have to go out on the king's highway."

Didn't come cheap

For McMahon, the victory was a costly one: So far in the race, she has spent close to $20 million - almost all of it from her own fortune - making her campaign the fourth-most expensive self-financed race in American history and among the most expensive races ever in Connecticut.

McMahon's wealth allowed her to bankroll a massive campaign including television commercials that sought to allay concerns about her WWE background; several ads referred to WWE programming as a "soap opera."

Her campaign also spent large sums on direct-mail campaigns that spelled out, in depth, policies and legislation McMahon said she would support as senator.

Many of her supporters said her WWE career is an example of running a successful business, not a liability to her campaign.

"I was never following wrestling much, but she sure knows how to dig out of a hole," said Bill Bechter of Newington, at the victory party with his wife, Ellie. "She went bankrupt, dug herself out, and started a successful business that brought some 500 jobs to Connecticut. And that impresses me."

McMahon has also refused to take money from political action committees or special-interest groups and is only taking donations of $100 or less from supporters.

McMahon's war chest dwarfed those of rivals Simmons, whose campaign spent $2.5 million, and tea party favorite Schiff, whose $2.6 million in spending included $625,000 of his own money.

But McMahon said that political capital does not come from personal wealth, the media and pundits, or from the political establishment.

"It isn't a birthright, it can't be bought: it has to be earned," she said. "And tonight, I am humbled to have earned your support."

Simmons had begun his day visiting polling place after polling place around the state.

At every stop - schools and community centers in Glastonbury, Manchester, Simsbury, Watertown, Shelton and East Lyme - he leapt out of his midnight blue Chevy TrailBlazer (license plate: GUNG-HO), red tie on and sleeves rolled up, and strode briskly up to voters, whether they were coming or going, just to say hello, shake hands, hug them, listen to their thoughts and, often, share a joke.

And - oh, yes - he also made sure to hand them a potholder emblazoned with his name and the slogan "No problem too hot to handle."

He was accompanied, he joked, by his entire campaign staff: his wife and driver, Heidi, and his scheduler, UConn college student Jessica Dussault.

So how did he feel about running as the underdog against a candidate with tons of money and no political experience, he was asked.

"Well, democracy is an amazing thing, isn't it?" he said. "That's all part of the deal, I guess. I mean, there's a basic unfairness when somebody comes into the race with no background, and no experience but $100 million or $50 million in the bank.

"As it currently stands, I'm allowed to raise $2,400 for each race … the convention, the primary, the general. That's $7,200 total from anybody. … What happens is the extremely wealthy candidates essentially squeeze out those people who are, like me, middle class, but who have dedicated my life to public service."

At each stop, Simmons kept pulling potholders out of his pockets and pressing them on anyone and everyone he met, Republicans and Democrats alike.

"Potholders, for the record, were first used by Horace Seely-Brown," Simmons said, "back in the late '40s after World War II. He was a Republican from Pomfret, Connecticut, an orchardist and a very dedicated public servant."

Bill Nighan stopped to ask Simmons a question: "Did you ever read Alexis de Tocqueville's classic?"

"Yes, I have," Simmons said. "And I've read it more than once, and it is a classic."

"They were trying to figure out what democracy was all about," Nighan said. "He says, 'You know, a funny thing, they often don't put the best people in charge.'"

McMahon said she would continue to spend her own money in the Senate race to raise her profile among Connecticut voters, though would not name a specific dollar figure.

"Richard Blumenthal has had about a 20-year head start on publicity and I still have a need to catch up," she said in a press conference after her speech.

She said she looked forward to campaigning against Blumenthal, saying she was eager to attend the three televised debates he has committed to.

"And if there are more available, I'd be happy to do them too," she said.

She said that she anticipated more attacks based on her WWE background, a tactic used by both Simmons and Sch iff.

"The more my opponents talk about the WWE, I continue talking about the issues and what's worrying the people in Connecticut," she said.

McMahon said she had television conversations both Simmons and Schiff, in which she told each man that she was "very hopeful they would campaign for me and I said I could use their counsel."

k.robinson@theday.com

m.collette@theday.com

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