Posted 11/12/12


No Free Lunch
Senator-elect Murphy

Photo by Steve Kotchko

In political terms, Congressman Chris Murphy (D-CT) smoked his Republican rival in the hotly-contested U.S. Senate race in Connecticut decided in the recent elections.  Final stats indicate Senator-elect Murphy beat McMahon by nearly 13 percentage points.  You’ll recall that mid-campaign, pollsters were rating the contest a “dead heat”.  In the end McMahon wound up dead in the water—again.

Murphy’s winning margin mirrors the 2010 Senate contest when McMahon lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.  McMahon, the former CEO of Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment spent nearly $100 million of her own money trying to gain a Senate seat in two separate races and wound up with nothing to show for it.

In this year’s go-round, McMahon, who said she’d learned some lessons from her defeat in 2010 tried to soften her image.  She was just “Linda” on campaign signs and literature.  She reached out to women’s groups trying to improve her standing among female voters.  She tried to appeal to older voters by claiming she would do nothing to harm Social Security and Medicare.

For a while, the strategy seemed to be working.  In polls, voters initially said they “liked” McMahon better than Murphy, and they certainly knew her better from the 2010 statewide campaign, and her abundant TV ads that ran virtually all year.

So what happened?

At a post-election news conference, at Capitol Lunch in New Britain, one of Murphy’s favorite 5th District dining spots, the Congressman offered his own thoughts of how things shifted in his favor.  “I think things started to move in our direction when we began to debate,” said Murphy.  “Once voters got to see Linda McMahon and I standing next to each other talking about the issues and articulating the differences, the polls started to move.”

Murphy said his campaign staff understood that early in the contest they’d have to endure a close race when McMahon was free to pump out costly TV ads promoting herself and attacking Murphy.  “We knew we weren’t going to be able to start spending our resources (on TV ads) until mid-fall,” he revealed.

Another not-so-secret weapon for Murphy was President Barack Obama.  Polls showed Obama’s lead in Connecticut over Republican Mitt Romney was mounting as the campaign season wore on.  McMahon’s campaign tried to counter that trend by running TV ads advising undecided independent voters who might be moving toward Obama, that they could vote for McMahon on the Independent line.  The ad hinted, if elected, McMahon could work with the President.

That tactic backfired to some degree because many loyal Republicans became incensed that McMahon seemed to throw Romney under the bus just to promote her own candidacy.
            Murphy’s campaign succeeded in capitalizing on Obama’s popularity in Connecticut by getting the President to cut a TV ad supporting Murphy for Senate.  The ad saw heavy “rotation” on TV stations in the days leading up to the election.

Then there was the “wealth” factor.  Republicans have run many millionaires against Democratic Senators such as Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman without success.  The GOP could not afford a real effort against those incumbents when they were popular, and readily agreed to give the nominations to bored wealthy candidates who’d pay for their own political adventure.

McMahon took that pattern to a new level of financial commitment, but there simply was no return on investment in Connecticut.

“People got sick and tired of McMahon’s attack ads and they wanted a candidate who was really talking about ideas and had some substance,” said Murphy.  Democratic strategists trotted out the slogans that helped Blumenthal win in 2010, such as:  “Connecticut voters want an election, not an auction”, and “in Connecticut, you can’t buy a U.S. Senate seat”.

However, Murphy’s victory was by no means a chip shot.  Early on many Democrats were nervous because McMahon was doing well in many aspects of the polling data, and Murphy, a relatively unknown congressman, did not seem to be catching fire in traditionally blue state Connecticut.

Ironically, that lackluster early performance by Murphy may have saved his campaign.  In Washington, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, eyed the political radar and saw that supposedly solid Democratic Connecticut might be trending Republican in the Senate race.  The Democratic team began pouring money into Murphy’s campaign to protect against the embarrassing loss of a Senate seat once deemed safe.

Asked about the outside funding, Murphy said:  “Clearly it helped to have assistance from the national groups that closed the advertising gap, but they didn’t come close to eliminating it.  We still probably got outspent by a five-to-one margin.”

For his part, Murphy vows to work in Washington in a bipartisan fashion on important issues.  “I’m going to represent everybody in this state, regardless of whether they supported me or Linda McMahon,” he said.  The Senator-elect noted he is taking over a seat filled by someone with a history of crossing party lines to get things done.  “Sen. Lieberman’s seat comes with a responsibility to be one of the people in the Senate willing to reach out and work with Republicans.”

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