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Hartford - In his U.S. Senate race against former wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy of Connecticut often says she would be the richest senator if elected in November, while he would be the poorest.
It's a line that gets laughs on the campaign trail, but Murphy is serious about trying to turn McMahon's affluence into a political liability for his better-funded rival.
The three-term congressman misses few opportunities to mention McMahon's personal fortune as the candidates spar over their economic and tax plans. He says he is not trying to stoke class warfare but rather to suggest that she does not have the interests of typical voters at heart.
"I think it's only relevant to the extent that Linda McMahon's economic plan seems to be designed just for the wealthy and I think there are plenty of people with extreme wealth who are incredibly altruistic, but I think that Linda McMahon seems to be running for Senate in order to protect and grow her extreme wealth," Murphy said in an interview.
One area where the candidates have clashed is whether to keep President George W. Bush-era tax cuts in place, including the 15 percent capital gains and dividend tax rate. While Murphy argues that McMahon would save herself $7 million through a tax plan that keeps those cuts for the wealthiest, McMahon says Murphy does not understand that taxes should not be raised on anyone right now, including job creators.
"You don't raise taxes when the economy is so sluggish," she said at a recent campaign stop in Danbury. When the economy improves, McMahon said, she "absolutely would call for and support adjustments to those individuals who are wealthier, including myself, to pay more tax" so long as the revenue would reduce the deficit or debt and not underwrite more spending.
McMahon's campaign maintains that the Republican's plan would not affect her personally, but her proposal would cut the middle-class tax rate from 25 percent to 15 percent, predicting such a change would save a family of four earning $125,000 about $6,000 a year.
McMahon, the former CEO of WWE, formerly known as World Wrestling Entertainment, spent $50 million of her own money on a failed Senate bid in 2010. She and her husband, Vince McMahon, earned $24.1 million last year, mostly through income on investments.
Murphy earns $174,000 annually as a congressman. He and his wife, Catherine Holahan, who works for Connecticut Legal Services, earned a total of $220,353 in 2011, according to their tax returns.
When Murphy says he would be the least affluent member of the U.S. Senate, his campaign staff said the congressman bases that on his financial status after accounting for liabilities such as the mortgage on his home in Cheshire, valued between $250,001 and $500,000 on his financial disclosure form, and two student loans, each valued between $15,001 and $50,000.
He was speaking with a group of nursing home workers in Colchester recently when he mentioned he would be the poorest senator.
"But that's OK," he told the group, "because I think it means that I can relate better than most people in Congress to what you and your families are going through and what families that you're serving here have gone through and are going through."
It's a campaign pitch that could resonate with voters who are struggling financially as Murphy finds himself in a close race with McMahon. A Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday shows McMahon slightly leads Murphy, 49 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters. The survey of 1,472 voters has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
Meanwhile, a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center found that nearly six in 10 - or 58 percent - of Americans say the rich don't pay enough in taxes. The survey also found that many Americans believe rich people to be intelligent and hardworking but also greedy and less honest than the average American.
Barbara Price, a housekeeper at Harrington Court who came to hear Murphy speak, said she believes the wealthy should pay more.
"You don't want to begrudge the rich. They work hard. Some have come in to money, they work hard for it. I think they should, like he says, just maybe pay a little bit more and use it to help others," she said.
Price, who has not yet decided which Senate candidate to support in November, said she's seen McMahon's TV commercials in which the successful former CEO speaks about her humble beginnings and how she and her husband went through a bankruptcy. But she knows the couple is far from those hard times today, and that matters to her.
"To me, it does," she said.
Murphy told the nursing home workers that his mission is to stick up for them and not "the millionaires and billionaires and Fortune 500 companies that seem to be doing pretty well."
"I'm not talking about pitting rich people against poor people," he said. "I just think that everybody would be better off if we were investing in the middle class."