Can McMahon Close the Gap in Connecticut Senate Race?

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Norwalk, Conn.

In politics as in business, Linda McMahon grasps the art of the sale. During Thursday morning’s debate between Connecticut’s Senate candidates, the Republican cast herself as the antidote to the bankrupt politics of Washington, a product few voters are pleased with in this turbulent cycle. “The choice in this election is absolutely clear,” said McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. “We have a career politician versus a businesswoman who knows how to create jobs.”

Her opponent embraced the dichotomy. “She is different from me,” replied Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee. “She has spent her life building a fortune. I have spent my life helping people build their futures.”

It was a testy exchange in a debate peppered with them, but both contenders were right; they could scarcely be more different. In a season when candidates are contorting their records to claim outsider status, McMahon is the authentic article, a pro-wrestling tycoon who has never held elected office yet committed $50 million to bankrolling her first campaign. Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general since 1991, is a well-respected fixture in the Nutmeg State, a jut-jawed 64-year-old (picture a preppier Eliot Spitzer) who was expected to coast into the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Chris Dodd. As recently as last spring, polls showed him with a cushion of more than 30 points. But a presumptive cakewalk has become a dogfight, with McMahon closing to within three points in one recent poll. A CNN/Time/Opinion Research survey released this week, which tracks with the results from several others, gave Blumenthal a 54%-41% edge.

That the race remains this close in blue Connecticut is a function of dissatisfaction with Democratic governance and a colossal blunder by the front-runner. In May a New York Times article revealed that Blumenthal had on several occasions misled voters by saying he served in Vietnam. (A Marine reserve, he never left the country.) Since then McMahon has whittled away at his lead by hewing closely to talking points that stress less government, lower taxes and a spate of new business-friendly measures, and paint her opponent as a free-spender. “We can’t afford Dick Blumenthal in Washington,” she told the crowd on Thursday.

McMahon was also on her home turf in a sense. The debate, held in a soulless Norwalk banquet hall with crystal chandeliers and mirrored ceilings, was hosted by a trio of business groups—in many respects her core constituency. After devouring a breakfast of bagels, eggs and bacon, each candidates’ supporters sat sequestered on opposite sides of the room, as if divided for a wedding, and cheered over the moderator’s objections when a jab landed squarely. McMahon hammered Blumenthal repeatedly for his Vietnam comments, as well as his 1989 vote, made as a state legislator, in favor of a tax increase. At one point, she punctuated a rambling account of tax loopholes with a zinger that sought to use the attorney general’s record against him. “You don’t understand business,” she told Blumenthal. “It’s not your fault. You’ve been in government all your life.”

Blumenthal struck back by noting that McMahon’s own business has been marred by a series of controversies, from a congressional probe into steroid abuse among wrestlers to an investigation of whether WWE had improperly classified its employees as independent contractors to curb spending. “Creating those kinds of jobs, without health insurance, is certainly not something I would brag about,” he said, adding that McMahon’s anti-Washington rhetoric belied the more than $1 million that WWE has spent on federal lobbying. (McMahon’s forays into the ring–in which she played her partt contributed to the WWE’s crude soap opera by slapping her daughter in the face and kicked a man in the groin–went unmentioned.) The pair also sparred over national issues ranging from cap-and-trade and the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy—which McMahon favors and Blumenthal opposes—to offshore drilling and the Affordable Care Act.

While the race has tightened, Blumenthal still appears in good shape. His 13-point cushion in the CNN/TIME poll includes an 11-point edge among independent voters, who make up a plurality of the state’s electorate. (Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 300,000.) But McMahon has inspired a zealous following. “When I heard the WWE lady was running, I thought, ‘Dear God,’” recalls Jamie Redniss, a retired property manager from Stamford who began volunteering for McMahon after being impressed by a public appearance. “I am totally distressed by what’s going on in Washington. I think she’ll vote her mind, and she’s not a socialist.” (When asked, she conceded that Blumenthal wasn’t either.)

For their part, a number of Blumenthal’s supporters lamented McMahon’s attempt to turn the veteran attorney general’s career in government into a weakness. “It’s opportunism,” says Tod Bryant, a Norwalk resident and a veteran who said the Vietnam gaffe didn’t tarnish his impression of Blumenthal. “He’s been beloved by many people in this state for 20 years. To make that a liability is ridiculous,” says Sandra Ross, a psychologist from New Canaan who argued McMahan was masking her experience deficit with barbs about big government. “He isn’t an extrovert or an aggressive speaker, but he’s a brilliant and deep thinker.” She paused. “That’s perhaps not the style today.”