Senate Ring

Ex-WWE CEO Linda McMahon Ready to Battle in Connecticut Senate Debate

The former WWE chief was trounced in her last Senate run, despite pouring in $50 million of her own money. Now the Republican is within striking distance of Joe Lieberman’s Connecticut seat, ahead of her first debate on Sunday. Lloyd Grove reports.

10.06.12 8:45 AM ET

At World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., the publicly traded global company that landed Linda McMahon and her husband, Vince, on the Forbes 400, performers with names like “Undertaker” and “Triple H” play out savage soap operas of dominance, submission, defiance, and triumph. The storyline of Linda McMahon’s Senate race in Connecticut, her second try after faring badly in 2010, is a similar clash of narratives and character arcs.

Last time around, in her first campaign for elected office, Republican McMahon ultimately spent more than $50 million of her own money to lose by 12 points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, falling short with women with a double-digit gender gap. The 64-year-old McMahon—who resigned as chief executive of WWE in September 2009 and ever since has distanced herself from the more unsavory aspects of the business that made her fortune—will have dropped a cumulative $100 million, by some estimates, before the race is over; this time, she’s presenting herself to Connecticut’s voters as a loyal wife, working mom, and doting grandma.

“That’s one of the things that’s different, because we didn’t get the women’s vote that we should have gotten,” McMahon tells me, her cadence betraying only a hint of her small-town North Carolina roots. “I was portrayed as a hard-edged CEO who really only cared about the bottom line and didn’t care about her employees or any of that. I didn’t even realize that that was the image that was coming across. I’ve not changed who I am. We’ve just made more of a concerted effort.”

The retirement of Joe Lieberman, a four-term Democrat turned independent who caucuses with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, gives the GOP a shot at picking up the seat. Although Barack Obama trounced John McCain in deep-blue Connecticut by 22 points in 2008, he’s unlikely to match that total. McMahon, meanwhile, is within striking distance of three-term Rep. Chris Murphy, whom she’s defined in a massive advertising campaign as a career politician anxious for a promotion, in contrast to her self-created image as a citizen-public servant.

Her straight-to-camera television spots—produced by Republican ad maker Larry McCarthy, whose notorious 1988 Willie Horton commercial helped sink Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis—show a friendly, independent-minded, pro-choice moderate who, despite her wealth, knows firsthand about the struggles of middle-class families. She went through her first pregnancy without health insurance, as she recounts in a campaign video; later she and Vince suffered financial reverses and were forced to file for bankruptcy. McMahon also has presided at more than 200 “Conversations with Linda,” schmoozing with up to 50 women at a time in living rooms and restaurants around the Nutmeg State—no press allowed.

“We sit around, we chat, they get to ask anything they want,” says McMahon, who in recent polls has been running nearly even among women with Murphy, a vast improvement over last time. “What I found from the last election was that women just really didn’t get to know me very well. This is not about writing a check to television stations. This is hard work, grass roots.”

The counter-narrative—supplied by the Murphy campaign, but with a tiny fraction of McMahon’s resources—depicts her as a self-serving plutocrat who favors tax cuts for the rich, would vote to allow employers to deny health-care coverage for contraception and mammograms, wants to phase out Social Security, and whose sexually charged WWE spectacles degraded women and glorified violence while targeting children with toxic images and toys. “Now she’s trying to hide that,” says a woman in one of Murphy’s attack ads. (“Totally false and pretty desperate,” McMahon says in her response spot, in which she sits at a dining-room table wearing a purple V-neck sweater and an exasperated smirk. “Murphy calls me anti-women, but Chris, take a look, I am a woman.”)

The 39-year-old Murphy has been absorbing McMahon’s relentless attacks focusing on his chronic absenteeism at House committee hearings and lawsuits filed over his nonpayment of rent in 2003 and a mortgage in 2007 (he explained that he “forgot”). “It comes as no surprise that she’s spending millions of dollars on personal attacks,” Murphy says as he and his wife, Cathy, do some retail politicking at a street fair in New Haven. “She tried to destroy Dick Blumenthal’s reputation two years ago [over the then-attorney general’s exaggerations of his military service, an erroneous claim that he fought in Vietnam]. It didn’t work. People rejected her style of politics.”

McMahon’s erstwhile Republican primary opponent Christopher Shays, the former congressman whom she swept away in a landslide last August, predicts that she’ll win if Obama runs less than 15 points ahead of Mitt Romney in Connecticut, as statewide polls suggest is possible. “Chris Murphy is spooked by her,” says Shays, a moderate Republican who was openly contemptuous of McMahon during the primary but now is lending his grudging support. “She is a much more astute candidate than last time, and she’s spending her money incredibly effectively.”

McMahon’s greatest strength? “She’s a storyteller,” Shays says, a skill she honed in the professional wrestling game, where she oversaw budgets and contracts, though, like Vince and their adult children, Shane and Stephanie, she occasionally entered the ring as a performer. Vince was the creative engine, spinning out melodramas of heroes and villains, overlords and underdogs. (Vince McMahon has been invisible in his wife's campaign; he first agreed to, then backed out of, an interview for this story.)

Yet some of WWE’s content is politically unhelpful if not horrific, such as video of Vince ordering a female wrestler to strip, get down on all fours and bark like a dog while he unzips his fly; or, with his son Shane, physically abusing a wrestler who plays a mentally disabled character named Eugene, shoving his head in a toilet. In recent weeks the company has been working overtime to scrub such stuff from the Internet. Since 2008, WWE has been rebranding itself as PG and family-friendly, and Linda defends WWE as “scripted entertainment.”

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McMahon, who has declined to submit herself to the interrogation of newspaper editorial boards around the state, is big on scripted campaigning. She’s telegenic and glib, but her ability to think on her feet will be most severely tested in a series of four debates with Murphy that begin on Sunday morning.

Among her more vociferous detractors is former Connecticut senator and governor Lowell Weicker Jr., a Republican turned independent who sat for more than a decade on the WWE board of directors until he was forced off in 2011. “She’s totally unqualified,” says the 81-year-old Weicker. “She hasn’t spent one minute of service to the state of Connecticut, to the federal government or to her local government [McMahon did sit briefly on the state Board of Education, appointed by her friend, then-governor Jodi Rell, in 2009.] And then, quite frankly, I find it insulting that she thinks she can buy the office of senator, which is the highest honor any state can bestow on one of its citizens.” A McMahon spokesman responds that “she is uniquely and highly qualified” because of her business chops. “And if it were possible to buy a Senate seat, then Linda McMahon would already be a senator.”

Weicker, who’s helping Murphy raise money, says McMahon’s image makeover bears little resemblance to the real thing. “This is a Linda McMahon I don’t even know.”

But her friend Jack Welch, the former chief executive of Connecticut-based General Electric, calls her “smart, savvy, compassionate, and authentic.” Ditto television executive Bonnie Hammer, who has closed several multimillion-dollar deals with McMahon over the past two decades as head of USA Network, home of WWE’s Monday night ratings-driver Raw, and more recently as chairman of NBCU cable entertainment and cable studios.

“She’s tough but very fair,” says Westport resident Hammer, an ardent Democrat who is supporting McMahon’s campaign and is exactly the kind of Connecticut voter she needs to win. “Her way of negotiating was very direct, very honest, and strong, but also it was win-win. She knew how to compromise and when to compromise.”

Arguably, if McMahon prevails, that’s a skill that could be described as senatorial.