Contrary to what Chris Shays and many pundits would have you believe, Linda McMahon’s huge victory yesterday in the Republican CT primary for a Senate seat was not won by money. If money was the decisive factor here in the land of steady habits, McMahon would have taken this election two years ago, when she outspent Democrat Dick Blumenthal 16 to one. McMahon did not merely lose two years ago, she was trounced. This time McMahon is gaining on the Democrat, Rep. Chris Murphy, with today’s poll showing a margin of only a few points between them. If McMahon wins in November, it won’t be her money that got her the job. Rather, it will be a triumph of the most old-fashioned politics of all- the politics of personality.
Coffee klatch after tea party, in gatherings as small as five and as large as fifty, I have seen Linda McMahon work the room. She obeyed the Woody Allen rule of success- she showed up. Gliding amid strangers, Linda smiled graciously, expert in small talk and making people feel at ease. Up close and personal, you strip away the millions and see what is presented to you: a middle-aged woman, nicely dressed but not fancy. Someone who resembles the recently retired and much admired former governor Jodi Rell, in looks and mannerisms. A person who looks like the image we have of ourselves here in Connecticut: tough on the inside, classy and understated on the outside.
Much to my own disappointment, Linda avoided issues during this campaign. Instead, she relied on her personal story of economic redemption and her personality. Whereas I wanted her to come out swinging during the Republican primary season on the issues of reproductive rights and the role of women in society, Linda stayed mum, sticking to her plan to get to know as many individual women as she could throughout the state.
Two years ago, I got to know Linda the politician when she appeared on my radio show, often in person in the studio. I was predisposed not to like her because of the way she made her money. I abhor the WWE scene and frankly cannot stand watching violence of any kind, particularly when it involves women. I’ve read that many people were seriously injured as a result of involvement with her business. Even though members of my own family were big fans of pro wrestling , I never saw the appeal. Nonetheless, Linda the person disarmed me. She was humble, self-effacing, and appeared interested in helping real people. I wasn’t surprised that she lost big then, because Connecticut had not had the chance to get to know her yet.
In the last two years, well before she officially announced the re-run, Linda took a page out of Tip O’Neill’s political playbook. She kept it local. I kept bumping into her at events that I was either emceeing or attending. She sat on panels or took her place at charitable tables. From Hartford to Danbury to Greenwich, Linda was there. She brought her mother or her daughter or came by herself. She was reachable, sitting among people instead of above them.
Yesterday’s victory for Linda McMahon is a triumph of the most old-fashioned kind of American politics there is-the kind that says if you show up and meet as many people as you can, then you have earned the right to ask for their vote. Linda also understood that you can’t win an election today without winning the women. We vote in greater numbers than men, everywhere. Linda had an especially hard uphill climb to win with in that category, but she faced the challenge head on, recruiting many of my closest friends into working hard for her campaign.
Last election, I didn’t vote for Linda. I liked her, but I didn’t think she had earned the right to my vote. Yesterday, I voted for her. This fall, I’ll be asking and listening about the issues I care about. I intend to persuade Linda that she is wrong on the issue of fracking and natural gas. My vote in November is still up for grabs, but I believe she will listen to me with an open mind. You don’t get that from most politicians these days.
Chris Murphy has the edge in November, for here in Connecticut the majority of us are socially liberal, aligning ourselves much more closely with the national Democratic platform than the Republican one. But nobody knows Chris. They now know Linda. And if she wins in November, it will be because now that they know her, they like her.