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LAS VEGAS - AUGUST 24: World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. CEO Linda McMahon and her husband, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, appear in the ring during Vince McMahon's 64th birthday celebration at the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Linda McMahon;Vince McMahon
Money swept the system but the establishment gained a toehold in Connecticut last night, as wrestling maven Linda McMahon coasted to the GOP Senate nomination but second-time self-funding Democrat Ned Lamont was trounced in an upset by his primary rival for governor.
McMahon, who's spent north of $22 million of her personal fortune from decades at the helm of the WWE wrestling franchise, easily held off a late-game challenge from former Rep. Rob Simmons, who had dropped out but then resuscitated his campaign in the final three weeks of the race, and investor Peter Schiff.
But Lamont’s personal fortune couldn’t stave off defeat against longtime Stamford mayor Dan Malloy. Lamont also couldn’t recapture the electricity around his 2006 anti-war-focused primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman, which forced the incumbent to re-register as an independent to regain his seat.
Even McMahon’s deep-pocketed campaign left her short of the 50 percent mark in the three-way race to take on Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a fact that creates an appearance of a weakness and that Democrats are sure to highlight given the fortune she spent. The two are vying for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.
Still, the Republican electorate will be overwhelmingly behind her heading into the fall thanks to anti-White House anger - and the big play in the state is for the independents.
And it's those independents who will become the focus of the race now, as McMahon is expected to dump tens of millions of dollars more into her race in an effort to stave off the wrestling-related negatives expected to featured in Democratic TV ads.
Blumenthal had enjoyed a 30-point lead heading into the summer, but thanks to his own slip-ups, voter mood and the McMahon campaign's barrage of ads and direct mail, he has watched it steadily erode into a mere 10-point edge in the latest Quinnipiac University survey.
Now, McMahon is expected to continue aggressively defining Blumenthal - whose own approval ratings have been over 70 percent thanks to his length of time in Connecticut politics, yet who remains curiously undefined among many voters, experts say.
"He has not run a particularly good campaign," said one veteran Democratic strategist who's a longtime observer of the state's politics.
Political watchers are gearing up for a vicious battle - in which McMahon continues to hammer Blumenthal over the misstatements about his service during the Vietnam War (a story her campaign took credit for heading into the state's GOP convention) and as a creature of the political system.
She will also, according to one GOP strategist close to the campaign, start focusing a large chunk of her money on building up a strong ground game heading into November - an area where Democrats traditionally have a natural edge thanks to unions and other outside groups.
Chris Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, argued she's well on her way on that front.
"I think she already has demonstrated by winning the convention that she already has grassroots supports," he said.
"McMahon's operation was not just television, but it was a way to go out and meet activists, talk to them, get them enthused. These types of campaigns are won with that kind of effort: you can't buy it, you have to earn it."
Blumenthal and the Democrats, meanwhile, will likely start to aggressively frame her as a fighter for herself, while he's a fighter for the average folks. Democrats are already heavily targeting stories about the investigations into steroid use and other scandals at the WWE, including the way in which in paints women.
The problem will be amplification - most people already know something about wrestling's negatives, and the sport remains highly popular in Connecticut.
And in a state where registered independents make up more than 40 percent of the electorate, according to Quinnipiac’s Douglas Schwartz, it's not clear that trying to argue constantly that she bought the election will work, especially in a year when there's such strong anti-establishment sentiment.
"She's gaining with independents - that's the key group," said Schwartz. "In all our polls up until the last one, Blumenthal led in independents, and now they're evenly divided. It's because of the money."
McMahon's ads - including a much-derided one by Democrats in which two suburban mom-types are seen driving in a car discussing wrestling as a "soap opera" that was part of a larger job-creating company - have been everywhere.
They've even aired on networks during daytime programming in New York, where many Connecticut denizens commute to by day.
Blumenthal, by contrast, has been "maintaining a low profile," Schwartz said. "In the meantime, he's sort of ceded the field to her."
It's a similar phenomenon to what happened in California - Democrat Jerry Brown, also an AG with high name-recognition but little definition when pollsters start digging in, let Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner duke it out through the June primary.
By the time Whitman, a billionaire self-funder, was the nominee, Brown was basically tied with her in the polls - and tens of millions of dollars behind in campaign cash.
Even if she's not attacking him on the trail or in TV ads, McMahon is making clear she is going to keep using her vast wealth to define Blumenthal in the two-way contest.
In the days before the primary polls opened, McMahon reportedly started mailing out a new round of campaign lit attacking Blumenthal for 'lying" about his military record - and said he "lied again" when caught the first time.
"She gets attacked over the wrestling stuff," Schwartz said, but he noted, "The only thing that you really heard about Blumenthal in the last six months was the Vietnam [flap]."
Another strategist put Blumenthal's challenges simply: "The atmosphere for Democrats running for federal office is corrosive."
Still, Blumenthal is considered the probable favorite, if not the prohibitive one. He has a thin bank account and the money has not poured in the way he had hoped.
"He took less of a hit for the Vietnam thing than most any other politician would have," said Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein, who worked on Lieberman's race in 2006. "And McMahon seems to have hit a ceiling, I suspect because of the wrestling thing."
Many believe Blumenthal will be a recipient of some Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spending, in a bid to retain as many currently Democratic seats as possible.
There is a silver lining for Blumenthal - a sense that some of the wrestling attacks are working. After dodging reporters for the duration of the campaign, McMahon's ex-wrestler husband, Vince, finally gave an interview in the last few days, accusing people of distorting the record of their small business enterprise.
And the candidate herself gave an interview to ABC News, in which she said, "I certainly think you could look at the business side of how WWE was run, which was as a conservative company with little debt and strong cash balances."
She was also asked about her own daughter being greeted to chants of "slut!" in the ring, and replied, "You have to think about the WWE as soap operas.”
“It was acting and WWE is the longest-running weekly episodic program in television. Sure, there are story lines that are better than others,” she said, adding that voters in Connecticut “are not concerned about soap opera story lines.”
But video of women barking like dogs being shown in ads against her may test the "soap opera" line.
Turnout was very light in Connecticut, with most estimates putting it at about 20 percent - a surprisingly low showing considering there were 44 primaries statewide.
There was also a Republican gubernatorial primary, in which contenders included Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele; Tom Foley, a businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and business executive Oz Griebel.
In the fight for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Lamont suffered a stunning and surprising defeat Tuesday night, losing by double-digit margin to Malloy. Public surveys showed Lamont leading Malloy by a slim margin in the days leading up the election, but Lamont became the first gubernatorial candidate to concede his bid Tuesday evening after the polls closed.
Malloy is the frontrunner in the governor's race according to recent polls, and Democrats will have to rely on his candidacy – instead of Lamont’s deep pockets – to win the highest office in the state.
“I think that Malloy ran a pretty good campaign,” said Tom Swan, Lamont’s 2006 campaign manager. “I think Dan will probably be our next governor of Connecticut.”
Malloy defeated Lamont despite being heavily outspent. Lamont put $8.6 million of his own personal fortune into this primary for governor – enough to trigger the state to give Malloy matching funds up to $2.5 million. The last-minute cash boost helped Malloy buy a great deal of air time and propel him to victory over the 2006 liberal poster boy with deep pockets.
Lamont became a national political figure in 2006, when the local progressive base and a national online liberal network supported his candidacy for senate against Lieberman. He famously defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary, but lost to him in the general election because he was unable to garner support from independent and Republican voters.
Gerstein said Lamont perhaps “over learned” his lesson from his last bid for office because he tried to run is a more centrist businessman, instead of merely appealing to the party’s progressive base.
“Ned was kind of in a tough spot in this campaign because to win, he had to broaden his base beyond a liberal, anti-war coalition that helped him beat Lieberman,” Gerstein said. “But the way he did, and tried to position himself as a businessman, was in hindsight not a good strategy. It gave Malloy an opening to put together a pretty strong Connecticut primary coalition including lot of labor folks.”
Malloy's campaign took advantage of Lamont's move to the center in this year's bid, then zeroed in on his negatives and painted him as a wealthy, out-of-touch businessman who was sued for discrimination, among other things. Lamont unsuccessfully targeted Malloy for his record as mayor, including awarding what his opponent said were no-bid contracts during his tenure at the city's helm.