In 2010, Republican Linda McMahon spent over $50 million on her campaign for senator from Connecticut — and lost by twelve points to veteran state attorney general Richard Blumenthal.
Now McMahon is running again, in the race to succeed the retiring Joe Lieberman, and two recent polls showed her in the lead. Both Rasmussen and Quinnipiac found McMahon leading her Democratic rival, Representative Chris Murphy, by three points. A third recent poll, however, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found McMahon lagging four points behind Murphy.
“We’ve been telling people it’s going to be a close race,” says John McLaughlin, who is doing the polling for McMahon this cycle. It is certainly shaping up differently from 2010. Take that Rasmussen poll: Among the dozens of polls on the 2010 Senate race collected by Real Clear Politics, not a single one shows McMahon in the lead. The closest she ever came to closing the gap was trailing Blumenthal by three points in a couple of polls.
State Republicans see two key differences between 2012 and 2010. First, McMahon is running a better campaign. “She’s much more oriented towards the ground game,” explains Joe Markley, a Connecticut state senator. Tom Scott, a former state senator who worked for McMahon’s campaign earlier this cycle, agrees. “There was absolutely no ground game in 2010,” he says; the way she is campaigning this time could prove to be “very effective in a close race.”
McMahon has also been diligent about connecting with Republicans across the state. Chris Healy, former chairman of the Connecticut GOP, says, “After losing two years ago, Linda assiduously went out and really worked the local precinct level. Now, when you go to any one of her satellite campaign offices, you’ll find it filled with volunteers — it’s not just paid staffers.”
The other crucial difference is her opponent. There are huge differences in the two men’s favorable ratings at this point in the race. In a Quinnipiac poll from late July/early August 2010, Blumenthal had a 57 percent favorable rating and 30 percent unfavorable. In a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in late July 2012, Murphy had a 38 percent favorable rating and 31 percent unfavorable.
Furthermore, Blumenthal was a much better-known figure. “There was an expression at the state capital that the most dangerous thing you could do was get between Dick Blumenthal and a TV camera,” comments Scott. And Blumenthal worked the local political circuit diligently: “He was everywhere for 20 years, so he was very, very well known and had personally touched hundreds of thousands of people,” says Scott. “Murphy, by contrast, represents 20 percent of Connecticut,” and isn’t well known outside his own district.
Also boosting McMahon’s chances is the fact that state Democrats aren’t thriving these days. According to a recent PPP poll, 51 percent of state voters disapprove of Democratic governor Dan Malloy, who has hiked taxes. A campaign-finance scandal that led to eight people’s being charged with federal election-law violations exploded around House Speaker Chris Donovan. The Democratic “brand has been taking a beating,” says Healy.
As for McMahon, her favorable ratings are improving, although they remain poor. A PPP poll released days before the 2010 election showed her with 52 percent unfavorable and 37 percent favorable. In the late-July PPP poll, she had 48 percent unfavorable and 42 percent favorable, a switch from a net negative of 15 points to a net negative of six points.
Markley speculates that attacks against McMahon may not be as effective this time around. “There is a limit to how much you can beat somebody up over the same thing,” he remarks. “Obviously, that’s going to be the strategy — to hit her again on the wrestling. I do agree that a certain number of people are just turned off by that, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But there’s no surprise left there. Everybody knows about it already.”
Still, McMahon faces steep odds. “This is one of the races where the campaign will matter,” comments Vincent Moscardelli, a political-science professor at the University of Connecticut. “The structural advantages favor Murphy. Democratic registration outnumbers Republican registration by a pretty wide margin. Also, President Obama will do well here, which should benefit Murphy and other down-ticket Democrats. But she’s going to run a good campaign. She’s got plenty of money and she has run for statewide office before, so she knows what she’s doing.”
William Salka, a political-science professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, disputes that Murphy is a weaker candidate than Blumenthal. First, he points out, it was unearthed in the 2010 race that Blumenthal had spoken deceptively about his military service, suggesting that he had gone to Vietnam, when he hadn’t. Furthermore, Murphy has served in the House three terms and has a long record; his positions are established. Blumenthal, as attorney general, had to spend part of his campaign trying to introduce people to policy positions.
“Murphy’s principal weakness was his lack of name recognition,” Salka says. But there has been a surge in TV commercials on both sides, and even the Republican ads opposing Murphy are putting his name out in front of independent voters. “Certainly by November my three-year-old will know Chris Murphy’s name,” Salka adds.
Whether McMahon wins or not, her campaign could well affect other races by forcing the Democrats to spend money on a Senate race in a blue state. “Unless Rasmussen’s poll is an outlier,” says Scott, “and I don’t believe it is, the Democrats will be forced to start doing some heavy spending very soon. And this Senate race can go right down to the wire.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.