SOMERS, Conn. — The headline in the local newspaper was salacious: “WWE scrubs sex scenes from McMahon’s time as CEO.”
“Look at that,” said Joel LaChance, an 82-year-old undecided voter who thought the headline and accompanying photos of scantily clad women a political embarrassment. In the often dirty — and increasingly expensive — Senate race between businesswoman Linda McMahon and Democrat Representative Chris Murphy, Connecticut voters are preparing to take cover.
“The mud’s going to fly,” LaChance said, plopped down in a lawn chair awaiting a parade earlier this month in this politically mixed town northeast of Hartford, the capital.
Connecticut has largely been Democratic country this past decade. President Obama is expected to easily win here and Democrats, fiercely trying to keep their slim majority in the US Senate, had initially thought McMahon presented no threat, given that her candidacy and image were beaten soundly in a 2010 Senate bid.
Instead, polls are tightening in the race to replace retiring Senator Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat and now an independent.
Many observers credit McMahon, 63, with learning well the lessons from 2010. The former pro wrestling executive has walked a tightrope between projecting a more positive image of her background while relentlessly pummeling her opponent. She calls Murphy a deadbeat who missed rent and mortgage payments. She is seeking an ethics inquiry into what she alleges was a “sweetheart” bank loan Murphy received from a campaign benefactor.
Murphy, a 38-year-old three-term congressman, calls McMahon a wily businesswoman who is more opportunist than public servant, more concerned about helping herself than the people she would represent. And he accuses her of peddling sex and violence in her former role at World Wrestling Entertainment.
It was a bruising campaign two years ago, when McMahon tangled with former attorney general Richard Blumenthal in her first run for the Senate. It’s no different this time around, said Jennifer Necci Dineen, director of polling at the University of Connecticut.
“The campaign is more about who they were in the past, and not what they will do in the future,’’ Dineen said.
McMahon’s former company acknowledged purging unflattering videos from YouTube — not to bolster McMahon’s image, the company said, but to promote wrestling as family-friendly fare. McMahon said her campaign was not involved in the effort.
Two years ago, McMahon’s 12 percentage-point loss to Blumenthal was partly blamed on her inability to connect with women, many repelled by her ties to the wrestling world.
“She’s been trying to change her image ever since 2010. Voters seem to like her more than they did two years ago,” said Doug Schwartz, the director of polling at Quinnipiac University. “She’s been trying to connect with the average voter. She’s now focusing on her plan for creating jobs.’’
She says she will push a six-point plan to produce jobs, including easing regulations.
Yet, she also has shown a willingness to buck Republican orthodoxy.
While promising tax cuts for the middle class, McMahon says she wouldn’t be opposed to raising taxes on the wealthy — if used to pay down the country’s debt and only when the economy has fully recovered.
She also favors abortion rights, opposes major changes to Medicare, and rejects the austerity plan of Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president.
Last week, she denounced GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s videotaped remarks denigrating the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes.
McMahon is also offering a narrative of perseverance, a life story of how she and her husband, Vince, overcame bankruptcy in 1976 to establish a job-creating enterprise. “We’re running the kind of campaign that we think we need to run,” said McMahon amid the backdrop of the parade in Somers.
It appears to be working. In the past two weeks, polls from Quinnipiac and the University of Connecticut show McMahon is running neck-and-neck with Murphy among female voters. Two years ago, she lost the women’s vote by double digits.
Murphy is working hard to introduce himself to voters outside his sprawling congressional district west of Hartford. He presents himself as a champion of the middle class and of seniors worried about cuts to Medicare. He founded the Buy American Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that promotes incentives for US companies to create jobs at home.
McMahon, however, is trying to define Murphy as part of the problem in Washington, and is using her fortune to deliver the message.
McMahon has raised more than $14 million, nearly all from her own pocket, according to the latest campaign filings in July, the latest available. Much of that money was spent on a primary campaign against former representative Christopher Shays, who could not match her campaign prowess. McMahon spent more than $50 million of her own money to finance her 2010 campaign.
Murphy acknowledges he can’t muster the same resources. Murphy had raised $5.3 million, although theDemocratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is rushing in to help.
In the early weeks of the campaign, Murphy has been on defense.
McMahon has demanded a full accounting of how he missed rent payments in 2003, mortgage payments in 2006, tax bills, and other financial lapses. She battered Murphy over a loan he received from a bank that contributed to previous campaigns. Former bank officials have said he was qualified for the loan.
Murphy acknowledged his mistakes, blaming problems to inattentiveness while changing political jobs and confusion while merging finances as a newlywed. In an interview, he accused McMahon of “mind-blowing hypocrisy,” asserting that she “went through every legal means necessary or available to her to avoid paying her creditors.’’
To quell that line of attack, McMahon announced on Friday she would begin repaying the debts — nearly $1 million owed to 26 creditors, according to The Day of New London. Yet, on that same day, it was revealed that McMahon owed more than $28,000 in overdue taxes for a penthouse, which she quickly paid.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that half of the $14 million raised by US Senate candidate Linda McMahon was from her own pocket. Nearly all of those contributions are self-financed.