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Should Democrat Richard Blumenthal Panic in Connecticut Senate Race?

The travails of Richard Blumenthal in his quest for a Connecticut Senate seat show the steep challenge Democrats face in November: even candidates who are wildly popular statewide can't seem to gain traction in elections for jobs in Washington.

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Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon. (Jessica Hill / AP)

It's been some time since the Gaggle checked in with the Nutmeg state, and the Senate race there has gotten a lot spicier in the meantime.

Time was, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was up 32 points against Republican Linda McMahon. Now one poll shows him with one 10th of that margin, leading McMahon just 49–46. While that's closer than any other poll—even Rasmussen gives Blumenthal a 5-point lead—the trend is pretty clear. In fact, aggregated poll averages for the race are closer to a perfect cone than you'd ever imagine was possible.

What's going on? That very close poll, from Quinnipiac, suggests that angry people are the difference. Connecticut voters are just very upset, and they're taking it out at the polls. While Blumenthal isn't an incumbent for the seat, he's a longtime fixture in state politics—as opposed to McMahon, an outsider candidate.

In theory, she ought to be easy to beat. She has no experience in politics; her campaign is largely self-funded, making her easy to paint as a fat cat; and her major track record is in pro wrestling, as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, which continues to be a liability for her (suffice it to say there's a lot of embarrassing video out there, as well as accusations about steroid abuse). Blumenthal, on the other hand, is well regarded and well known. While revelations that he had on occasion lied about his service in Vietnam were seen as a major threat, he weathered that storm quite well, and it's no longer a big issue in the campaign.

As my colleague Eleanor Clift predicted back in May, the issue faded quickly. But Blumenthal has still seen his numbers getting worse and worse. In a fantastic story in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, Connecticut native Matt Bai discussed how the Vietnam incident actually presaged what's going on now:

The assault on Blumenthal’s Vietnam half-truths didn’t stick with the voters because it didn’t reinforce anything they already believed about him. This is how it is in politics; because the voters long ago decided that this Blumenthal guy they kept reading about was basically an honest sort, it will likely take more than a few misstatements to derail him. But the other argument that McMahon is just now beginning to make, that Blumenthal is your typical insider, a lifelong politician who just doesn’t get what they’re going through—this is an attack that might flower in the current environment, and he seems to know it.

There's actually a neat parallel between Blumenthal and Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor and Senate candidate from West Virginia, that illustrates just how tough the battle is for Democrats running for Congress. Both are very popular officials in their home states, where they've got good track records. According to the Quinnipiac poll, voters overwhelmingly approve of Blumenthal's job as AG, and a slight majority have a favorable view of him. Manchin, meanwhile, has approval ratings around 70 percent. But even though both men are running for offices with the same statewide electorate that has elected and reelected them, they can't seem to make much headway when they're trying to go to Washington rather than Hartford or Charleston.

Now the good news for Democrats: Blumenthal's still ahead and, as Wayne Barrett and Nate Silver both point out, there are good reasons not to put too much stock in Quinnipiac's polls, which use a somewhat esoteric likely-voter formula and have recently produced some far outlying results. If Silver, the Delphic Oracle of political polling, is skeptical, it's probably wise to be skeptical as well. And it's also the case that although they've discussed McMahon's WWE past, Democrats haven't thrown the kitchen sink of attacks ads at her yet, preferring to rebut her blasts at Blumenthal.

Attack ads are risky, but McMahon looks like she might be vulnerable. There's the WWE issue, and there are other possibilities, too. Rookie campaigners are bound to trip up; Blumenthal told Bai (again, the story's a must-read) that, in essence, policy wasn't something she was willing to discuss on the campaign trail. It's a real forehead-smacker. In short, it may be time for Democrats to panic in Connecticut, but not yet time for them to despair.

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