Linda McMahon, the former CEO of wrestling juggernaut WWE, once again won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, crushing former Congressman Christopher Shays by a 3-to-1 ratio.
In her victory speech, McMahon laid out the themes she intends to strike in the weeks leading up to the November election — creating jobs, chiefly.
"I am passionate about preserving opportunity for everyone to participate in the American Dream as I have," she said. "We can and will do much better. We are not doomed to live in this perpetual stagnation."
McMahon praised Shays but said her victory proves voters want a business leader over a career politician. It's an argument she already has been making against Rep. Chris Murphy, the Democratic nominee, who has spent his career in government, first in Hartford and now in Washington.
"Chris Murphy is a professional politician,'' she told cheering supporters. "I am the small business jobs creator. He does not understand how jobs are created and has never created a job. I do. I have. We will."
Murphy, McMahon said, "has never felt that pain in your stomach, that gnawing knot" of anxiety over whether or not you will be able to meet payroll, she said. "Congressman Murphy is burying the American Dream. We will save the American Dream,'' she said.
Tuesday's GOP primary pitted experience — Shays served 21 years in Congress, representing the state's 4th District — against McMahon's millions. Shays lacked the money for TV ads; he ran just one commercial late in the campaign, while McMahon flooded the airwaves, pouring $13.4 million into the race so far.
Shays had insisted despite dismal poll results that an upset was possible, and he had criticized McMahon for looking ahead to the general election before Tuesday's vote. But at his campaign headquarters in Stratford, he conceded the race at 8:40, telling a small group of supporters he had expected a closer race — but was proud to have run.
While Shays took a few shots at McMahon's brand of politics, he also vowed to back her in the general election battle against her Democratic opponent, Rep. Chris Murphy, for the seat now held by retiring U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman.
"She has my vote and my support,'' said Shays, who was the last New England Republican in the U.S. House when he lost to Jim Himes in 2008. "This is her night and she should enjoy her moment."
For McMahon, the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate is her second in as many cycles, and her second primary election victory over a moderate former U.S. representative. Two years ago, she beat former Congressman Rob Simmons and Peter Schiff. McMahon then lost the general election to Sen. Richard Blumenthal by 12 percentage points, despite spending about $50 million of her own money on the bid.
Since then, she has retooled her image and emphasized winning over women voters, who largely were not behind her two years ago.
At Shays' headquarters, several campaign volunteers winced when Shays said he would back McMahon, but none booed or jeered. When a reporter asked how he could endorse a candidate he repeatedly called unqualified, Shays took a few moments to formulate an answer — and ultimately didn't back away from that accusation.
"Her positions are more in line with mine than with Chris Murphy's," he said.
When asked whether he is retiring, Shays was quick to reply "No, I don't plan to retire. But I don't know what 'no' means."
"My wife and I will campaign for Republicans," he added, "I'll worry about making a living after that."
On Tuesday, Shays said he doesn't take back any of his criticism. "I do not respect how she ran," Shays said, criticizing McMahon for dodging the press and refusing to meet with newspaper editorial boards.
McMahon largely overlooked Shays, focusing instead on Murphy, who handily won his primary against former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz Tuesday.
McMahon had never run for political office until 2010; in fact she gave money to Democratic candidates as recently as 2006. She eschewed old-school political rituals, such as meeting with newspaper editorial boards, and instead convened small groups of supporters in living rooms.
Shays contrasted his record with McMahon's experience running a wrestling company. He painted her as a vanity candidate who lacks gravitas and an understanding of how government works. And he made fun of her main talking point — that she is a job creator who understands what businesses need from government.
"Hugh Hefner is a job creator," Shays said pointedly during a June debate at the University of Connecticut. "I don't want Hugh Hefner being there and I don't want Linda McMahon being there."
But despite McMahon's huge wealth, supporters call her down-to-earth. At the victory party in Stamford, Ellen Steele, 61, and Linda Macchio, 65, sat a table, each with patriotic pocketbooks featuring the American flag.
"She's a real human being," Macchio, of Fairfield, said as she enjoyed plates of food from the tables that featured hummus and pita chips, an antipasti display including salami, tomatoes and mozzarella, and bruschetta on crostini.
The two women and a friend who joined them, Patricia Dalessio, a 59-year-old semi-retired event planner, said they consider McMahon a survivor whose ads note she grew up poor and who managed to make it through bankruptcy with her husband.
"That's why I love her. She's a survivor," Dalessio said. "I think because of that she really understands the needs of so many people who are in survivor mode right now."
Shays had made the early case that he was more electable than McMahon, citing a poll showing that we would fare better against Murphy than her. But that argument was seized from Shays two months later when a second poll showed McMahon running almost even with Murphy.
The Democratic Senatorial campaign committee wasted no time issuing a press release attacking McMahon.
"Linda McMahon is a greedy CEO who made millions marketing sex and violence to little kids, all at the expense of the health and safety of her own employees,'' Guy Cecil, the committee's executive director said in an email sent moments after AP called the race for McMahon.
"If her business record wasn't bad enough, her support for the reckless Romney-Ryan agenda that would essentially end Medicare in order to give billionaires more tax cuts would be devastating for Connecticut's middle-class," Cecil wrote.
McMahon, however, said her plan calls for tax relief for the middle-class.
"I have set my mind to fight for policies that will create jobs — good jobs — right here in Connecticut," she said. "That is the heart and soul of our campaign — bringing a track record of experience and success in the real world to help others succeed."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun