Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy of Connecticut defeated two-time Republican candidate Linda McMahon to fill retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat on Election Day.
President Obama’s Friday endorsement of Murphy in his first ad cut for a Senate candidate this cycle reflected the unexpectedly contentious nature of the race and the importance to Senate Democrats of holding the seat occupied by Lieberman, an independent who caucused with the Democrats.
Given the fundamental difference in the candidates’ economic visions vis-à-vis the state’s Democratic leaning, it’s not surprising that the Nutmeg State eventually chose Murphy. What is noteworthy is that such a negative campaign, in which Murphy floundered for much of the summer, concluded with a largely renewed focus on issues, leading to McMahon’s late plunge.
The little-known 5th District congressman, who raised a total of $9 million, experienced a late boost in the polls after initially struggling to climb out from under the steady stream of attack ads financed by the nearly $42 million of personal money McMahon poured into her campaign.
As one of the only Republicans in New England with a shot at winning a Senate seat, McMahon’s success depended on her ability to portray herself as a moderate. Murphy chipped away at her independent image by consistently tying her to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on taxes, Social Security, and women’s health issues in hopes of once again denying McMahon the women’s support she needed to win.
Running against then-Attorney General Dick Blumenthal in 2010, McMahon experienced a similar October slump, eventually losing by 12 percentage points. But 2012 showcased a different McMahon. Gone were the overt references to the business of wrestling, and here to stay was McMahon the grandmother who married early, struggled with bankruptcy and built a business that created “hundreds of good Connecticut jobs.” She made an effort to connect with voters, women in particular, in living rooms across the state.
McMahon used her millions to define Murphy even before the primaries were over, first hitting him for a poor committee attendance record, then for not having a jobs plan. She slammed his votes against two defense bills, saying he imperiled the state’s defense jobs.
The negativity of her ads started to resemble 2010. But seizing on revelations that Murphy had missed mortgage and rent payments, then alleging he received “a sweetheart deal” from Webster Bank, only got her so far after it came out that she and husband Vince failed to pay back creditors from their 1976 bankruptcy.
By late summer, however, Democrats in Connecticut and Washington were worried that Murphy was paralyzed by McMahon’s punches. Without the statewide notoriety or the campaign coffers of Blumenthal, it looked like Murphy might hand McMahon a seat that hadn’t been won by a Republican since 1982, making her the wealthiest member of the Senate. Diverting funds from New Mexico in mid-September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee picked up the attack on McMahon’s WWE tenure, accusing her of laying off employees while wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy.
The evolution of social issues from wedge status to main focus of the campaign began as an effort to help Murphy steer the discussion away from his personal finances and capitalize on McMahon’s historically low performance among women, all while tapping into the fury over Missouri GOP nominee Todd Akin’s rape comments. Frequently flanked by Planned Parenthood leaders, Murphy harped on McMahon’s support—even if tepid—for the Blunt Amendment, most aggressively in his ad, “McMahon Demeans Women.”
McMahon cited religious freedom as explanation for her support of the Blunt Amendment, which allows religiously-affiliated employers to opt out of covering contraception for their employees.
With her softer image flooding living rooms during prime time, McMahon repeated her support for abortion rights, answering Murphy’s attacks with the refrain, “I am a woman.” Denouncing both Akin’s and Indiana GOP nominee Richard Mourdock’s rape comments, and leading the pack of Republicans condemning Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remarks, she tried to preempt Democratic efforts to tie her to the top of the ticket.
But a softened image didn’t change McMahon the candidate. Her refusal to speak openly to reporters and the perception that she was buying the seat earned her scorn. Her inability to deliver policy specifics beyond a vague six-point jobs plan came to a head during four televised debates, where Murphy introduced himself to voters outside his district as the more substantive candidate.
Heading into the campaign’s final stretch, Murphy put McMahon on the defensive when he pounced on footage of her using the word “sunset” when talking about Social Security. For the rest of the campaign, she was in a position too close for comfort to the national ticket and was forced to reiterate constantly that she would not end Social Security or Medicare.
McMahon continued to buck the national party, touting her dual billing on the Independent Party line in an ad in which split-ticket voters said they’d vote for President Obama and her. But a softer image did not yield a less-scripted campaign, and McMahon’s unwillingness to explain how exactly she’d differ from her party didn’t give her the votes she needed to overcome Connecticut’s Democratic tilt.