When Republican Linda McMahon ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, her Connecticut opponents gleefully highlighted images from 2001 showing the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. in the ring, kicking her husband, Vince, in the groin.
Now in a closely matched second Senate campaign, the company her husband still runs is scrubbing the most violent and salacious clips from the Web, ensuring that they can’t be used in political attacks.
The disappearing video segments show just how far McMahon, 64, has come from her 2010 loss. Drawing more than $13 million from her own fortune, she has blanketed Connecticut with advertisements that portray her as a kindly grandmother focused on the future. Her campaign has also pummeled opponent Chris Murphy, a Democrat, as a deadbeat congressman.
“She’s defined the race” for the seat Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, is giving up, said Gary Rose, who teaches politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Without the resources, it would be a completely different contest.”
McMahon, who helped build Stamford, Connecticut-based WWE into a global entertainment franchise, is giving her party hope for a win in a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1982. Democrats control the chamber, 53-47, and a McMahon win would help the Republican bid for a majority. While President Barack Obama leads challenger Mitt Romney in recent voter surveys by as much as 14 percentage points in Connecticut, several show her in a close race with Murphy, 39.
A University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant poll released today showed 44 percent of likely voters backing Murphy to McMahon’s 38 percent, with 17 percent undecided. The survey had Obama leading Romney 51 percent to 37 percent. A Siena College Research Institute survey released yesterday put Murphy at 46 percent to McMahon’s 44 percent.
Cory Bliss, McMahon’s campaign manager, called the UConn poll “completely flawed,” in a statement today, saying it oversampled Democrats at the expense of independents, who make up the state’s largest voting bloc. The pollsters surveyed 265 Democrats, 187 Republicans and 87 independents.
The Connecticut Democratic Party last month tried reviving attacks on McMahon using old video clips from WWE productions, which have been broadcast on cable television for years.
One segment, subsequently disabled online, began with the statement, “What Linda McMahon doesn’t want you to see.” It showed two female wrestlers stripping to their underwear in the ring and fondling each other before two male wrestlers appear and beat them unconscious during the televised show.
“The way that she demeaned women in the ring is abhorrent to thousands of women across this state,” Murphy said today in a candidates’ debate in Hartford. He also said McMahon is responsible for making society worse “by selling sex and violence to our kids.”
Another now-removed clip showed simulated sex acts between a male and female wrestler, first in the ring and then in what appears to be a funeral home with the woman in a casket.
There’s at least one segment still on Google Inc.’s YouTube website that shows Linda McMahon, dressed in business attire, entering the wrestling ring to kick Vince McMahon in a staged squabble over control of the business.
“We wanted to let voters know about the content of the WWE, because that’s how she made her money and that’s how she’s financing her campaign,” said Elizabeth Larkin, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party.
By removing links to “edgier footage” from digital platforms, the company said it would “better reflect our current family-friendly brand of entertainment,” in a Sept. 13 statement.
“Some of this footage has been misused in political environments without any context or explanation as to when it was produced,” the company said.
As for efforts to scrape the video segments from the Internet, the company said: “Any assertion that WWE is coordinating with Linda McMahon’s U.S. Senate campaign is false; to do so would be unlawful,” in a statement provided by Tara Carraro, a spokeswoman in Stamford.
By using the clips, Democrats were trying to distract voters from Murphy’s record, Todd Abrajano, a McMahon spokesman, said this week.
The Republican’s campaign has focused attacks on how Murphy, who first won his House seat in 2006, missed 80 percent of his congressional committee meetings during the financial crisis, and on lapses in his personal finances.
Murphy, from Cheshire, serves on the Foreign Affairs and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The UConn poll shows him benefiting from a lead over McMahon among likely women voters, 50 percent to 32 percent.
“When we polled on this race last month, there wasn’t much of a gender gap,” Jennifer Necci Dineen, the survey’s director, said in a statement.
Connecticut’s five U.S. House members are all Democrats, and the party controls the governor’s office and state Legislature. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1 in the state, while 42 percent are independents, more than either major party.
“A Democrat is always going to have an advantage” in Connecticut, said Ronald Schurin, who teaches politics at UConn in Storrs.
Outside organizations have spent almost $4 million in the campaign, much of it to attack McMahon and counter her assaults on Murphy, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Some TV spots paint her as a corporate profiteer who cared little for employees, firing 10 percent of them in 2009, while making $46 million that year.
Schurin said that while Murphy hasn’t run an effective campaign, “the tide is very much moving in his direction,” particularly since the candidates started their four debates on Oct. 7. The final debate was today in Hartford.
“I am voting for Chris Murphy and tonight’s performances had a lot to do with it,” Patrick Williamson, 30, a registered Democrat from West Hartford, said on Oct. 11 after attending the candidates’ second debate. “Linda convinced me not to vote for her. My overwhelming conclusion from seeing them debate issues in person is that Linda is not equipped to be a U.S. senator.”
A North Carolina native, McMahon resigned as president and chief executive officer of WWE in 2009. The company, which began growing rapidly in the 1980s as wrestling characters such as Hulk Hogan, played by Terry Bollea, emerged as celebrities, had a market value of $625.7 million as of yesterday. It employs about 600 people.
She left the company before her first Senate run in which she donated or loaned more than $46 million to the campaign. She lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the former state attorney general.
In that race, McMahon was dogged by questions about WWE shows and practices, including allegations that some performers took steroids, painkillers and other drugs to stay in the ring. Vince McMahon was indicted on charges of distributing steroids to wrestlers in 1993 and was acquitted. Congress also investigated steroid use in pro wrestling in 2007, after one of WWE’s wrestlers, Chris Benoit, killed his wife, son and himself.
McMahon is banking on economic concerns among voters in Connecticut, where unemployment jumped to 9 percent in August from 7.7 percent in April, while the national rate hovered at 8.1 percent over that period.
McMahon has spent the past two years recasting her image while also building support among local Republican groups, using what she learned from 2010 to shape her candidacy with “a new narrative,” according to analysts such as Sacred Heart’s Rose.
“It’s been a combination of her own personal narrative and that she has effectively defined for the electorate who her opponent is,” Rose said.
That strategy may pay off.
“I’m a registered Democrat, but they couldn’t get my vote,” said Ed Welshock, 67, a former lumber salesman from Mystic. “I met her. She’s not the person they make her out to be. She’s really a nice person. I’d rather have her than Murphy.”