Uncasville, Conn. — The GOP primary battle between former Rep. Rob
Simmons (R) and professional wrestling promoter Linda McMahon is
turning into what might be called a smackdown.
The departure of the controversy-plagued incumbent, Sen. Chris Dodd (D), may have made the race less interesting in the eyes of Washington analysts, but the GOP candidates have only increased their intensity — and negativity.
The contest has turned nasty as Simmons and McMahon have exchanged a series of proverbial body slams, pile-drivers and elbows to the face — all to the delight of Democratic strategists.
Simmons issued a press release Thursday attacking McMahon on a number of fronts. Simmons raised the issue of rampant steroid abuse in the wrestling business she headed with her husband; he criticized her for contributing more than $35,000 to Democratic candidates; and claimed she only voted twice in Connecticut.
McMahon blasted Simmons on Tuesday for flip-flopping on union-endorsed 'card-check' legislation, which he now opposes after supporting it in Congress.
Simmons has also accused McMahon of circulating the rumor that he is preparing to drop out of the Senate race to run for his old House seat.
Voters will not cast ballots in the Senate Republican primary until August but Simmons and McMahon are campaigning as though the Election Day is weeks away.
On Thursday, Simmons left his home in Stonington at 5 a.m. to drive into New York City to organize opposition to the civilian court trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Simmons did not return home until 10:30 p.m. after a long day of meetings.
On Friday, Simmons was already on the stump at 7:30 a.m., drinking coffee with local entrepreneurs at a business expo in a cavernous conference room of the Mohegan Sun casino in Montville. As weary gamblers chain-smoked cigarettes at blackjack tables town the hall, Simmons was the peppiest person in the room, praising the virtues of free enterprise and touting his candidacy.
Simmons feels pressure to work feverishly because he’s matched against an opponent who has vowed to spend as much as $30 million of her own money to win.
McMahon has never held elected office but that is balanced by the fortune she amassed from her professional wrestling empire.
McMahon, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina and still carries a trace of southern accent, has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks. She claims to have held more than 230 meetings with voters and spent more than $5 million on her campaign.
She believes that a “new face” will appeal to voters in a year when many incumbents feel under threat.
The unexpectedly close battle between state Sen. Scott Brown (R) and state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D) seat in Massachusetts has raised the stakes.
McMahon called the election “a referendum about Washington’s role in our economic recovery and job creation.”
“If we need any indicator of how you can close a gap, it’s clearly Scott Brown in Massachusetts,” she said in an interview. “His message about the need for Republican values and smaller government is resonating.”
Simmons has also framed his campaign as a crusade against the growth of government.
“There’s no question that Dodd was injured by some of the personal issues affecting his candidacy,” said Simmons. “But I would argue that he was also injured by his close association with the policies coming out of Washington, D.C.”
Simmons said that Connecticut voters see the pending healthcare reform bill as a “government takeover” of healthcare.
He said Democrats must defend the $787 billion economic stimulus package that sent two-thirds of its benefits for Connecticut directly to the state government.
“It was used to balance the [state] budget so it was a government-to-government transfer,” he said.
A poll released this week by Quinnipiac University showed Simmons leading McMahon by 10 points, 37 percent to 27 percent, among Republican voters.
McMahon claims she has the momentum in the race, arguing that Simmons had a 38-point lead over his nearest GOP rival in September. But Simmons counters that McMahon’s climb in public support has slowed down despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. She only gained a point on Simmons since the last Quinnipiac poll.
The same poll showed state Attorney General Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings MORE, the Democratic candidate who has stepped in for Dodd, with big leads. He beats Simmons 62 percent to 27 percent and tops McMahon 62 percent to 23 percent.
Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, said that Republicans will have a much tougher race in the wake of Dodd’s announced retirement.
He downplayed comparisons between Blumenthal and Coakley, who are both popular state attorneys general.
McLean said that Coakley has turned out to be a “lousy campaigning candidate” while Blumenthal has laid his campaign groundwork for years.
“Blumenthal is always going to every little campaign event, he goes to county fairs on a regular basis,” said McLean. “He’s a really strong campaigner because he’s so visible and always connecting to people.”
McLean said Dodd’s political standing plummeted in part because of prolonged absences from the state, fueling a perception that he was not working hard enough for his constituents.
Despite Blumenthal’s big lead in the polls, the slugging between Simmons and McMahon became more vicious this week. If analysts think they’re fighting for runner-up in the general election, the candidates themselves believe otherwise.
Simmons issued a multiple-page press release highlighting “Linda McMahon’s Many Myths.”
McMahon has tried to turn the attack around by highlighting her experience as a business leader in Connecticut, charging that Simmons has virtually no experience creating jobs in the private sector.
“Rob’s service has been in government or politics his whole career. Mine has been building a business, knowing what’s happening in the economy and knowing how to create jobs,” McMahon said.
A spokesman for McMahon acknowledged that she gave money to Democratic candidates but argued she did so as the CEO of a nonpartisan company. He also said she has given twice as much to Republican candidates.
The aide said the campaign received documentation from a Connecticut election official showing she has voted at least five times in the last nine years.
But Simmons isn’t apologizing.
“Facts can never be negative,” he said. “Facts are facts. They’re troublesome things.”
Neither is McMahon.
“He loves to mischaracterize,” she said of her opponent.