The exit of two candidates from Connecticut’s GOP Senate primary shows what former WWE head Linda McMahon and her money are capable of.
And as she establishes herself as a front-runner, her opponents will increasingly focus on where that money came from.
In a lengthy interview with The Hill on Monday, McMahon acknowledged that steroids were revealed to be a significant problem when WWE relaunched its testing program in 2006. But the recently departed CEO, who is married to current WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and still talks as if she is running the company, said the sport never relied on drugs for its bottom line.
She also defended its recent crackdown, which congressional investigators have criticized.
“It’s as good as it can be for today,” she said of the testing program. “But as technology advances and more is known and developed, we’ll continue to develop our policy, as we have done over the years.”
McMahon faces former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) for the right to face Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) next year, and recent polling shows her asserting herself in the Republican primary. Since that poll was released, former Ambassador Tom Foley has switched to the state’s governor’s race, and state Sen. Sam Caligiuri has opted to run for Congress against Rep. Chris MurphyChris MurphyRand Paul roils the Senate with NATO blockade Lawmakers want Trump commitment to help Iraq post-ISIS Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-Conn.).
McMahon has sought to play up the success of her business without focusing too much on the content and controversy, but WWE’s past will be front and center in her efforts against Simmons and, potentially, Dodd.
While Congress has delved into the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, the company’s status as an entertainment outfit rather than a sport has insulated it from the kind of official and media scrutiny faced by professional baseball.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the company hasn’t faced adversity.
After the death of Eddie Guerrero in 2005 and the sensational murder-suicide of Chris Benoit in 2007, Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) Oversight and Government Reform Committee began investigating. Waxman sent a letter to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) early this year calling drug use in professional wrestling “pervasive” and noting that, when the WWE reinstituted testing in 2006, 40 percent of wrestlers tested positive.
Waxman said wrestling companies have not dealt with the problem sufficiently.
Former wrestlers have also been out front, including, in recent weeks, legends like Bruno Sammartino and Billy Graham.
"She may look like a Sunday school teacher," Graham told The Hartford Courant. "Linda McMahon's hands are as bloody as her husband’s, because she is aware of every move in the ring.”
Another former wrestler, Marc Mero, said in an interview with The Hill that he doesn’t known Linda McMahon too well, but that he wouldn’t vote for her.
“I’ve lost 31 of my friends in professional wrestling,” said Mero, whose Champion of Choices program works to keep kids off drugs. “If it was any other sport, there would be hearings on Capitol Hill.”
Asked about her critics, McMahon’s tough side began to show.
She called Graham a “self-confessed liar” and dismissed Sammartino as someone who has “still got sour grapes because he didn’t make as much money as the guys today are making.”
“You’re going to always have the old-timers who are going to come out and say [things],” she said. “It’s just not like that.”
Of Waxman, she said: “I’m not sure that he took time to understand all of the rigors of WWE. … Before we had even sent the documents [to him], he denounced our program as being unsuccessful.”
According to Waxman’s letter, McMahon’s husband said to congressional investigators that he didn’t know for sure that steroids are harmful. She said she doesn’t think they help WWE’s performers.
“Unlike football or baseball or basketball, where steroids can actually enhance performance, they do nothing to enhance performance in WWE,” she said. She added that it is largely about a wrestler’s “charisma, the ability to connect with the audience, and how successfully they can act and perform within the storyline.”
McMahon noted that her company was a pioneer in wrestler safety when it standardized its rings and placed padded mats outside of them. She also said that WWE has programs for health and wellness and a system for dealing with concussions that is also used by the National Football League (NFL) and other major sports leagues.
She frequently emphasized that, in recent years, the programming has seen its content downgraded from TV-14, in some cases, to 100 percent PG. Her campaign featured this fact in response to the opposition digging up some of the more crass storylines in the WWE’s history.
She acknowledged that some of the storylines were over-the-top — critics point to one that featured simulated necrophilia — but said the change was as much a business decision as a moral one.
“It was a concern of having that right kind of programming for the time,” McMahon said, noting that many of the best-grossing movies tend to feature G and PG ratings.
McMahon is in a three-person race for the GOP nomination with Simmons and investment banker Peter Schiff. A recent Quinnipiac poll had Simmons leading her 28-17. She has been buoyed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in early advertising and remains on the air today.
National Republicans became interested in her candidacy when she made it known that she is willing to spend tens of millions of her personal fortune on the race. On Monday, she said she would spend as much as $50 million, which would rival the campaign spending of top self-funders like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and outgoing New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D).
-- This article was updated at 5:11 p.m.