HARTFORD, Conn. — Rep. Chris Murphy (D) and Republican businesswoman Linda McMahon tangled bitterly over Social Security, women’s rights and the economy during the fourth and final debate in a hard-fought Connecticut Senate race Democrats once thought they would easily win.
Murphy, a three-term congressman, sought to align McMahon to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party on fiscal and social issues. McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, made an appeal to women by insisting she supports abortion rights and access to contraceptives.
Citing the support McMahon has among anti-abortion leaders, Murphy said his Republican opponent was “not pro-choice.” Murphy criticized McMahon for supporting the Blunt Amendment, an effort by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to exempt employers from having to provide birth control to women if they object to the provision on moral grounds.
The contraception rule is part of the 2010 healthcare law.
Murphy said McMahon would empower a “radicalized” Republican Party in the Senate that would “eradicate a woman’s right to choose” if it wins the majority.
Republicans need to gain just three or four seats to take control of the Senate, making the Connecticut race one of the most important in the country.
On Social Security, McMahon drew attacks from Murphy after she refused to discuss specifics of her position at the outset of the debate because, she said, “they get demagogued.”
“She’s says she’s going to get demagogued. That may be a different way of saying she’s going to lose votes,” Murphy replied.
McMahon vowed to oppose any reduction in benefits to current recipients, while Murphy said he would support raising the cap on payroll taxes to extend the life of the program.
With a tightly-controlled audience, the debate did not feature the outbursts and loud cheering and booing that have characterized previous encounters between the candidates.
A University of Connecticut poll released before the debate gave Murphy a six-point lead among likely voters, 44 percent to 38 percent. That was a wider margin than other recent polls have shown. The closeness of the race has led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to spend money supporting Murphy and attacking McMahon.
Before the debate, both the Murphy campaign and the DSCC highlighted a report indicating that the WWE paid a $4.4 million tax settlement to the state of Connecticut when McMahon was CEO.
The issue was not raised during the debate, but McMahon downplayed the report afterward. She said it resulted from a change in the way the company was classified by the state for tax purposes.
The two candidates are battling for an open seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has not endorsed in the race. McMahon ran for the Senate in 2010 but lost to Richard Blumenthal (D) despite spending a record $50 million.
She is expected to spend about as much this year. McMahon has blanketed the state in ads as she seeks to upend Murphy, who is not as well-known statewide as was Blumenthal, a former longtime state attorney general.
While both candidates accused each other of lying in their ads, neither said they were embarrassed by their campaign commercials.
The debate was fought almost entirely on national issues that have also drawn attention in the presidential campaign.
Murphy pushed for higher taxes on the wealthy, while McMahon touted a six-point economic plan which is similar to Mitt Romney’s agenda and centers on cutting taxes, reducing regulations and pursuing energy independence.
McMahon blamed Murphy for supporting policies that have weakened the economy and criticized him for only talking about her, instead of his own economic plan.
“Congressman Murphy has never created any jobs. He’s never been a part of the private market. He’s a career politician,” McMahon said.
In response, Murphy criticized McMahon’s record in the private sector, accusing her of laying off workers after receiving tax breaks from the state. He said the WWE under her leadership “demeaned women.”
“Linda McMahon hasn’t just sat on the sidelines, she’s made things worse by mistreating her workers, by outsourcing work and by selling sex and violence to our kids,” Murphy said in his closing statement. “Linda McMahon has never been there for us, but I have.”
The debate featured one moment of levity when the candidates were asked to say something nice about their opponent. Murphy praised McMahon as a “driven person” and applauded her donations to charity.
McMahon praised Murphy’s two young sons. “They are so cute,” she gushed.
When she was offered additional time for a “rebuttal” on the question, McMahon passed.
“Don’t push it too far,” she joked to the moderator, before resuming her criticism of Murphy.
After the debate, Murphy feigned outrage.
“I’m still waiting for her to say something nice about me,” he quipped. “She said something nice about my kids. That doesn’t count!”