Jodi Latina remembers when Republican Linda McMahon’s 2010 Senate campaign — a $50 million affair that dominated airwaves and mailboxes for months — produced what she considered its best commercial.
It was late October. McMahon’s summer momentum had been halted by Democrats’ efforts to portray her as a cold-hearted executive who profited from her family-owned World Wrestling Entertainment’s sometimes violent, sexual and demeaning programming at the expense of performers’ well-being.
In the ad, McMahon, seated in a kitchen dressed in a yellow sweater, appealed directly to working and stay-at-home moms, families and struggling business owners.
“People have said a lot of false things about me ... I wanted you to know the truth about why I am running,” McMahon said with her slight Southern twang. She concluded with, “Thank you for allowing me into your homes.”
“I remember mentioning to her this is by far the best one put out,” said Latina, an aide for McMahon’s 2010 race. “It was her. She was down-to-earth. Connecting.”
The television spot was aired too late to salvage McMahon’s chances of beating Richard Blumenthal, but clearly others besides Latina found it effective. Two years later, as McMahon again pursues a Senate seat, her campaign is peppering television and the Internet with humanizing commercials highlighting the candidate’s interaction with real voters, particularly women, her family’s humble beginnings and emphasizing she is a wife, mother and grandmother.
At least one spot that aired in May even sought to rehabilitate the image of her husband, Vince, who continues to run Stamford-based WWE and whose antics in and out of the ring were a constant source of ammunition for Democrats.
“Vince and I met in church,” she said in the ad.
Her strategy is so far working.
When McMahon ran against then-Attorney General Blumenthal in 2010, a pre-Election Day Quinnipiac University poll found 50 percent of the electorate had a negative opinion of the Republican, with likely female voters embracing Blumenthal 61 to 36 percent.
In last week’s Quinnipiac poll on McMahon’s 2012 Senate race with Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, her negatives are down to 35 percent to Murphy’s 30 percent. And Murphy barely leads with women, 50 to 46 percent.
It all adds up to McMahon enjoying a slim, but still noteworthy, three-point lead in true-blue Connecticut.
A NEW NARRATIVE?
For some, the reason behind McMahon’s renewed traction is obvious. Just like in the entertainment world she hails from, if ratings are down, writers change the storyline.
“Two years ago it was, ’I am this fabulous business woman,’ ” said Leslie Simoes, who as a member of Moms Opposing McMahon hopes to remind voters about the seamier side of professional wrestling. “Now she is about how she went through bankruptcy, and she’s not seen as this very cold, corporate (candidate). ... I was getting my blood drawn and somebody said, ’I like her. She’s pretty.’ She spins a softer side and it reads well. That’s why people pay a ton of money on public relations.”
McMahon has so far committed $14 million of her wealth to beat Murphy, two years after she spent $50 million in her first foray into politics.
Marla Romash, who advised Blumenthal, said nothing about McMahon’s underlying narrative has changed.
“There’s all this talk she’s running a different campaign,” Romash said. “Maybe she’s wearing a sweater this time instead of a suit jacket?”
To some extent, Romash is correct. McMahon two years ago also stressed how she and Vince struggled and went bankrupt prior to finding success with WWE. And the campaign produced a few commercials in 2010 that attempted to polish McMahon’s image, including one in which daughter Stephanie talks about how growing up she never realized her parents “lost everything ... because our home was always filled with love.”
But in 2012, McMahon has focused much of her time and resources on the women’s vote. Besides an emphasis on her personable side in ads, she has launched tours of women-owned businesses, held intimate roundtables with female voters and joined Pinterest, a social network favored by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann.
The cover of McMahon’s most recent campaign brochure features an old photo of McMahon embracing a young Stephanie and son, Shane, in the woods. The back has printed testimonials from a woman restaurant owner and an interior designer.
“I think they’ve made a conscious decision to run at suburban women,” said veteran Democratic strategist Martin Dunleavy. “If you look at Connecticut, traditionally Democrats get their votes (from) urban dwellers. Republicans do very, very well in upscale suburbs and rural communities ... And the swing votes have been in the suburbs.”
The effort is a far cry from 2010, when one of McMahon’s few overt appeals to suburban women was a television commercial featuring two actresses driving in an SUV, praising McMahon’s executive prowess and dismissing WWE storylines as soap opera.
“Whether it was her decision or someone else, you’re seeing more of who the true candidate is,” Latina said.
One likely voter, Laraine Fenton, a Republican from Milford, said she has not noticed a difference in McMahon’s ads. She believes other female voters have simply come to appreciate McMahon’s emphasis on jobs and families.
Evelyn Ellis, of Danbury, a conservative, said women did not know enough about McMahon in 2010.
“I think she came out of the woodwork at the time,” Ellis said. “I got to know Linda, and she’s a downright earthy lady.”
Also aiding McMahon are the circumstances of the 2012 race, from her opponent to the economic climate to the fact the attacks on WWE of two years ago may no longer be considered relevant.
“Blumenthal was very well-known and well-liked,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Chris Murphy is ... a congressman from one district. So she has all of this overhanging name identification left over from 2010, and sometimes in the early stages of a campaign that’s enough to give you a lead.”
Jennifer Sacco, a political science professor at Quinnipiac, said, “Blumenthal had a long history of service he could take credit for. (Murphy’s) work is not as visible to people outside of his district. He just doesn’t have the same stature.”
Richard Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac, said voters might also be giving McMahon’s pitch as a job creator a second look because they do not feel the economy has improved.
“It’s certainly not as bad as 2008, but people are nevertheless scared of (losing) jobs,” Hanley said.
And lastly, observers said, the scrutiny WWE received in 2010 may help inoculate McMahon in 2012.
Former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays attempted unsuccessfully to revive the criticism during this year’s Republican primary. “The criticism of her and the WWE is a little bit old news,” said Sacco.
Sabato said generally no two campaigns can run on the same set of negatives.
“Murphy’s challenge is to come up with a different combination of negatives as to why she cannot represent Connecticut,” Sabato said. “No doubt there are solid anti-McMahon votes because of WWE, but it’s not enough.”
Romash argues McMahon’s money has improved her image from two years ago, but as Murphy increases his visibility, voters will appreciate his public service and again see McMahon as a profiteer.
“Chris Murphy and Dick Blumenthal start from different places, but in the end voters are going to face a very similar choice,” Romash said.
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