09.02.10

The Wrestler Could Win

Linda McMahon, who made the WWE a huge financial success, has her foot on her rival’s neck. Lloyd Grove talks to the GOP upstart about her chances, dead wrestlers, and Mickey Rourke.

Wrestling impresario Linda McMahon, the GOP Senate nominee in Connecticut, has been frequently misjudged by her adversaries. A few weeks ago, when one of her Republican primary opponents aired a television spot in which she was shown repeatedly kicking a ref in the crotch, he must have been surprised that she reveled in the image.

“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘We’re going to get you some steel-toed shoes when you get to Washington,’ ” McMahon tells me with a smirk, flashing her baby blues. Sipping iced coffee at the Starbucks on Greenwich Avenue, the main drag of the super-rich suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, where she lives on an $11 million estate, McMahon punctuates her little joke with a merry chuckle.

“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘We’re going to get you some steel-toed shoes when you get to Washington,’ ” McMahon jokes.

“I think I’m ready for this,” she tells me. “I think I’m ready for whatever they’ll bring out.”

A trim, stylish grandmother of six—who, with her notorious husband, Vince McMahon, has built what many view as an unsavory, brutish, dirty pastime into a billion-dollar business empire—the 61-year-old McMahon is surprisingly calm and polished for a political novice running her first statewide campaign. She laughs a lot and her eyes sparkle—like a woman who’s having fun in the throes of combat.

As the purveyor of a form of entertainment that occasionally results in injuries and even deaths, she surely has administered a throbbing pain to the Democratic frontrunner.

Not long ago McMahon was trailing the once-invincible attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, a two-decade veteran of Connecticut politics and the state’s most popular public official, by 40 points in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd. Now, after spending $22 million of the $50 million of her own money that she has budgeted for the campaign, she is polling within 10 points of the badly bruised Blumenthal.

Her relentless attacks on his character—for fudging the facts of his military record (and later apologizing for stating erroneously that he served in Vietnam) and fuzzing up his acceptance of special-interest donations (he vows he won’t; she claims he does)—has left him a victim of battered-candidate’s syndrome. (I look forward to giving Blumenthal equal time.)

“I don’t think he’s a bad guy at all,” McMahon tells me with a smile. “I would hope that the campaign would focus on the issues. I think it was necessary to draw some contrasts with Dick Blumenthal. He has been the attorney general for 20-some years and I think there was a certain reputation, if you will. I think he’s spent a great deal of time building that goodwill. You probably heard the saying that the most dangerous place to be in Connecticut is between Dick Blumenthal and a camera.”

Unless, of course, the most dangerous place is between Linda McMahon and a Senate seat. “It would be my goal to win, absolutely,” she tells me, acknowledging that as a former high-school athlete, she is, by nature, extremely competitive.

Having grown up in rural North Carolina—a fact that accounts for her vestigial Southern accent—Linda and Vince were teenagers when they met and fell for each other. She was married at 17 and soon pregnant, and the young family struggled financially. She was a stay-at-home mom with two little kids and Vince was working for his father, a small-time wrestling promoter, and having a hard time making a living. At one point, when they were living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the 1970s, they went bankrupt and briefly depended on food stamps.

“I think it was one or two weeks when we were on food stamps, when Vince was working at a rock quarry, making little ones out of big ones, working about 90 hours a week,” McMahon tells me. “I’d get up early in the morning and pack an almost hockey bag-sized athletic bag for sandwiches, a couple of thermoses and hot meals.”

Being down and out and needing government assistance was “not fun,” she says. “I didn’t like it at all, and I just said, ‘You know, I can’t do that,’ ” she recalls. “I’d rather find another job and supplement our income. That’s actually when Vince took on more hours at the rock quarry…After our son Shane was born we saved S&H Green Stamps, and actually bought a high chair and Shane’s formula with them.”

As wealthy and successful as she is today, McMahon says her previous experiences have made it easy for her to relate to Connecticut citizens who are suffering in the sour economy.

“I’m out on the campaign trail and I’m talking with people, I say, ‘Look, I understand where you’ve been,’” she tells me. “I connect with them right away. I’ve had them tell me, ‘One of the things we like about you is you get it, you feel what we do.’ It’s humiliating and then you get desperate. Some of the people I talk to are desperate at this particular moment.”

The race is expected to get increasingly down and dirty as the November election draws nigh. According to political pundits, it is likely to become a negative contest between Blumenthal’s bloopers and McMahon’s role in an unappetizing business in which performers are smacked in the head with chairs for the enjoyment of the mob.

Despite her attempts to portray wrestling as “soap opera” and good clean fun, critics call it an enterprise in which illegal steroid use, painkiller abuse, and serious brain injuries are still factors. They also note that five former WWE wrestlers have died from causes ranging from heart attack to suicide just since the Senate campaign started. But McMahon claims to have helped reform the business, making it more family-friendly than in its grubby, raunchy past, and she likes to tout the free medical care provided to contract employees who suffer on-the-job injuries, as well as free financial advice to help performers manage their money.

I ask her what she thought of the movie The Wrestler.

“I think it portrayed a business of years gone by, and I think Mickey Rourke did an excellent job,” she says. “But it was an industry of many men, and some women, who didn’t look to their future, because they believed the life they were living today would continue forever.”

All that’s changed now, she argues.

“It’s not a sport, it’s an entertainment industry,” she says. “I don’t think regulation is necessary. You’d be crazy not to protect the men and women [in the wrestling business]”—but the industry can take care of that, without the government intervening. “WWE is the first company to build barricades to separate audience from performers—and to pad the barricades and to pad the floor around them, in case somebody went over the top rope, There was some push-back from old-timers, who said, ‘No, you’re supposed to be rugged.’”

For the moment, Blumenthal has yet to match McMahon’s rugged blows with equal force. And she declines, metaphorically anyway, to remove her heel from his throat.

“The fact was that he misspoke several times and in several different instances [about Vietnam], and it was a pattern and practice over several years,” McMahon says. “I felt that after the New York Times broke the story”—with a big assist, as McMahon has acknowledged, from her opposition research team—“it was absolutely fair that the people of Connecticut needed to understand that.”

I ask her if she really sent her own stealth camera crew to Vancouver, Canada, to catch Blumenthal unawares traveling to a fundraiser where political action committee money was being dispensed to Democrats.

“I don’t think we did that—that was the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee]. Here’s the point I want to make: I don’t have any issue with taking special interest money. I’m funding my own campaign. I don’t have to do that [take PAC money], and I’m glad I don’t. But my issue with Blumenthal is he said he wouldn’t. The people of Connecticut need him to state the facts.”

McMahon is no Sarah Palin Republican, but solidly in the tradition of New England moderates. Although she markets herself as a tax-hating deficit hawk, she is pro-choice on abortion (with a couple of caveats: she’s against legalizing late-term “partial-birth” abortions, opposes federal funding except when the life and health of the mother are at risk, and she supports parental notification for girls 18 and under). And she endorses the right of states, like Connecticut, to legalize gay marriage—a position socially more liberal than President Obama’s.

In the meantime, she has become friendly with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-political independent who has held out the possibility of endorsing McMahon over Blumenthal. “You know if Joe endorsed me that would be fine with me,” McMahon says of Lieberman, a self-styled cultural critic who in times past has been disapproving of the violence, real and imagined, of the wrestling business. “I’m not seeking his endorsement.”

I ask her why she decided to run in the first place, given that her only previous political experience was as an appointed member of the state board of education and, like any prudent corporate executive, as a contributor to Republican and Democratic candidates alike.

“I reached a point in my career where I wanted to start giving back,” she says. “I served on the state board of education. I’m on the board of trustees for Sacred Heart University, and I really felt that I wanted to commit more time and effort to give back and to be involved at a very critical time in our government. Honestly, I’m very concerned about what we’ve become and what this country is, and I really wanted to step in.”

She adds: “I do believe that what our country needs today is more people like me, and not people like Dick Blumenthal, who actually said lawsuits create jobs. We need people who understand how to create jobs, and understand the consequences of taxes and regulations when they are placed on businesses. Dick Blumenthal has none of that kind of experience, and in this day and age, I think more is necessary than the typical politicians.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.