When Linda McMahon won the endorsement of the Connecticut State Republican convention in May, the wrestling mogul promised to "lay the smack-down
" on her Democratic rival, Richard Blumenthal, for the Senate seat being reluctantly vacated by Chris Dodd. There were no wrestling metaphors from McMahon Tuesday night as she easily won the three-way Senate GOP primary, albeit with only half the vote after spending $22 million of her own money. But make no mistake, McMahon's free-spending battle with Blumenthal to become the state's first Republican senator since the 1980s promises to be a steel-cage match in November.
This will be a high-decibel race likely to be fought over dueling -- and conspicuously flawed -- biographies. Blumenthal, the state's attorney general for two decades, is a popular and familiar figure who bizarrely has, on occasion, embellished his military record
to erroneously imply that he saw combat in Vietnam. "I do think that relative to Richard Blumenthal, the Vietnam story offers an entrée into looking at the man in a different way and the way he presented himself," McMahon said during a Monday afternoon interview
in Unionville. "But it's going to take a lot to focus in on Dick Blumenthal and have the people of Connecticut understand someone they don't know as well as they think they know."
Translation: McMahon plans to spend another $30 million on negative TV commercials designed to convince the voters that Blumenthal is not the public official he seems to be.
Linda McMahon's Senate race is only possible because of the fortune that she made (along with her husband Vince McMahon) from World Wrestling Entertainment. But her record with the WWE is also her greatest liability. As Sen. Robert Mendendez, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, put it in a snide post-primary press release, "As the former WWE CEO, McMahon built an empire peddling violent, sexually explicit material that glorified the exploitation of women, and the mentally disabled. Yet, it's McMahon's record outside the ring that is raising the most serious questions -- including steroid abuse running rampant under her watch."
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Translation: Blumenthal and the national Democratic Party intend to spend whatever it takes to convince the voters that McMahon is not the business leader she seems to be.
Since the state convention, McMahon had almost completely ignored her two rivals for the Republican nomination -- and it may have cut into her margin in the low-turnout primary. With 90 percent of the vote counted, McMahon had 49 percent to 28 percent for former three-term congressman Rob Simmons and 23 percent for financial consultant Peter Schiff.
Simmons, who earned two Bronze Stars in Vietnam and later served as an undercover CIA operative, had been recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to make the race. But that was before McMahon -- the fourth-most lavish self-funder in congressional history -- decided to challenge him for the nomination. But the under-funded Simmons proved to be an erratic candidate, banking his political future on winning the endorsement of the state Republican convention. When he failed in that quest, Simmons became an inactive candidate for two long months before re-emerging in mid-July with a TV ad that had to remind voters that the former congressman was still on the ballot.
Schiff, a free-market conservative who funded his own campaign, will mostly be remembered for the ever-tasteful slogan, "Schiff Happens."
Hotly contested, but mostly substance-free, gubernatorial primaries in both parties to succeed retiring GOP Gov. Jodi Rell offered a mixed verdict on self-funded candidates. On the Democratic side, former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy defeated telecommunications entrepreneur Ned Lamont, who threw $9 million of his own money
into the race. But the Republican nomination, in a three-way race, was narrowly won by former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who loaned his campaign $3 million.
Four years ago, antiwar crusader Lamont, then the darling of the liberal blogosphere, pulled off a stunning upset by narrowly defeating hawkish incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary. But despite spending $17 millions of his own money, Lamont saw his 2006 dreams die in November, when Lieberman got his comeuppance by decisively winning the general election while running as an independent. This year Lamont never survived primary night, losing to Malloy by a 58-to-42 percent margin with 90 percent of the vote tabulated.
Malloy was a grateful beneficiary of Connecticut's public-financing system for state elections, which awarded him $1.25 million for qualifying with enough small-donor contributions and another $1.25 million because of Lamont's free-spending ways. Armed with that $2.5-million bankroll, Malloy was able score with an attack ad that claimed that Lamont as a business executive had reduced his workforce by 70 percent and once settled a racial discrimination case. Many of these same charges were aired by Lieberman in 2006.
While his plight is unlikely to earn much sympathy, Lamont, whose great-grandfather was a close associate of J.P. Morgan, squandered (or invested) $26 million on a career in public office in Connecticut that never happened.
Even in the vituperative Republican primary, it is hard to argue that money really talked. Foley's financial edge was limited because his principal rival -- Michael Fedele, Connecticut's lieutenant governor -- also received $2.5 million from the state's public-financing program. With 90 percent of the vote in, Foley had 42 percent, Fedele 39 percent with another 19 percent going to Oz Griebel, a business association executive who did not receive state campaign funds.
Connecticut is reliably blue state in national elections, but the last Democratic governor was elected in 1986. The real challenge facing both Malloy and Foley in the months ahead will be to have their TV commercials noticed by the voters amid the "money not only talks, it shouts at the top of its lungs" McMahon-versus-Blumenthal Senate race.