By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/16/12 10:00 AM EDT
Linda McMahon is not the candidate Republicans originally looked to pull out a sleeper win in 2012. But with a recent independent poll giving her a three-point lead over challenger Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the state has become one to watch for Republicans scrambling to find a new path to the Senate majority, as some of their prospects have dimmed.
McMahon lost her 2010 bid -- in a Republican year, and even after spending $50 million of her own money -- by 12 points to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Following that loss, McMahon spent the next year and a half off the airwaves. Instead, she quietly crossed the state in what one Republican operative called a “listening tour,” to familiarize herself with local politicians and build grassroots support.
That’s part of the reason she coasted to such an easy win in the Republican primary, the operative added, but it has also helped her build support for the general election and erase some of the narrative of the cold-hearted businesswoman that dogged her in 2010.
Todd Abrajano, McMahon campaign spokesman, said that McMahon has continued that level of local handshaking in the general election campaign, citing over 100 “Conversations with Linda” and over 200 business roundtables she’s held thus far.
“We have a very extensive ground game this time, and Linda has been working especially hard to get out her message,” he said.
She’s learned other lessons from 2010, too, in using her personal fortune to address weaknesses that dogged her campaign two years ago. In that election, McMahon suffered a 20-point deficit with women, and Democrats successfully branded her as a CEO who made millions “marketing sex and violence to little kids,” at the expense of her workers.
This time, McMahon has hired a number of new consulting firms to hone and soften her message, and she came out early and often with television and radio ads during the primary that allowed her to introduce herself to voters. She’s also been making a special push for women voters, launching a “2,000 Women for Linda” campaign and joining the social network Pinterest, known for its female following.
Democrats insist that her vulnerabilities remain. Matt Canter, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said she’s still taken extreme positions on the issues in a Democratic state -- and that’s something, he said, “that an extreme multi-million-dollar makeover can't get rid of.”
Murphy hasn’t had much time to launch a substantial attack on McMahon’s record, however. From the start of the general campaign, the Republican has launched a volley of ads highlighting everything from Murphy’s absences from committee hearings during the financial crisis to missing payments on his mortgage and an increase in his loan that McMahon’s campaign has called a “sweetheart deal.”
In response, Murphy’s campaign has highlighted McMahon’s business practices and what they call her “anti-woman record,” but the congressman has been largely on the defensive, tamping down possible fallout from McMahon’s attacks.
The back-and-forth has frustrated some Democrats in the state, who say Murphy should have done a better job of introducing himself to Connecticut voters early in the race. The recent Quinnipiac poll, out in late August, reveals nearly a third of Connecticut voters don’t know enough about Murphy to have an opinion of him, indicating either side could succeed in defining the Democrat before the election.
Michael Cacace, formerly Sen. Blumenthal’s 2010 campaign chairman, said that Murphy may have missed his opportunity to introduce himself to voters.
“Frankly, there was an opportunity during the primary to better introduce himself to the state of Connecticut when he was not under fire by McMahon’s negative machine, and that was an opportunity lost,” Cacace said.
Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, pointed out that McMahon’s large personal fortune gave her the luxury of coming out early on television, radio and with mailings in such a volume that Murphy could not have hoped to compete with both her and his primary opponent, Susan Bysiewicz, in the early stages of the campaign.
“When you have millions of dollars that you can spend then that's easy, but Chris Murphy doesn't have that kind of money, and he was really focused on winning the primary,” she said.
Now that the race has shifted to the general election, however, Democrats are increasing their investment in the race, including a DSCC $320,000 ad buy. A Democratic operative active in local politics said that if Murphy’s drop in the polls has done anything advantageous for his campaign, it’s alarmed donors enough that they may be more willing to give to help defeat McMahon.
Democrats believe this is simply a repeat of 2010, which saw a burst of momentum for McMahon midway through the general election cycle, but with Blumenthal widening his lead a few weeks out from Election Day and going on to defeat her by double-digits.
“I don't think it’s anything any different than the situation that was in 2010 when she was able to narrow the gap through false attacks,” Canter said.
The difference between now and then, however, is the timing and extent of her surge: Around this same time in 2010, a Quinnipiac poll out in early September put Blumenthal ahead by 6 points, and he never lost a slight lead, though McMahon did manage to narrow it to three percentage points.
And there’s some concern among Democrats about Obama’s performance in Connecticut, which has been somewhat sub-par considering the strong Democratic constituency in that state, which has not voted for a Republican for president since 1988.
The same Quinnipiac poll gave Obama only a seven-point lead over Republican Mitt Romney, compared to a 12-point lead from a Republican poll around the same time in 2008.
If Democrats show less enthusiasm for the president, lower turnout could hurt Murphy’s chances at a win in November. And Obama’s campaign has shown little indication they’ll be competing there, spending resources and time instead on a handful of competitive battleground races.
Democrats still insist they have enough time to shift the race in their favor. Murphy spokesperson Taylor Lavender accused McMahon of running “a campaign based on lies and dishonesty” that would be debunked as the race wears on.
“Once voters are reminded of her record, they’ll remember why she’s wrong for Connecticut,” she said.