In one respect, she is the Sarah Palin of Connecticut.
Former professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon (R) is the elephant looming over those Nutmeg State Republicans interested in the Senate seat to be vacated by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) in 2012. Just as the former Alaska governor’s presence would instantly and dramatically change the shape of the coming GOP presidential primary, McMahon’s sensational background and massive bank account could transform Connecticut’s coming Senate contest.
And while she has signaled that she may run again, McMahon, who spent a record $50 million on her failed 2010 bid, does not appear to be in a hurry. Having bought near-universal name identification in the previous cycle, she can afford to wait, according to state GOP Chairman Chris Healy. But that indecision has affected the Republican field, or lack thereof.
“We have a lot of mayors, legislators who have some promise,” Healy told Roll Call this week. “But I think as long as Linda’s seen as a person interested, it in effect freezes out a lot of people from getting into it.”
He didn’t exactly call her out for hurting recruitment efforts, but Healy suggested that McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, should pick up the pace.
“I think if you’re serious about doing something this big, no matter what your background, you’ve got to make some indication that you’re serious about it,” he said. “I guess we’ll know in the next couple months whether she is.”
People close to McMahon privately concede that she’s been trying to distance herself from the WWE while staying visible in the months since her 10-point loss to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D). Late last month, she was a panelist at a Women in Power event in Westport. And following Palin’s lead, she has been active on Facebook, where she announces public appearances and even critiqued President Barack Obama’s State of the Union.
Through a campaign intermediary, McMahon declined Roll Call’s request for an interview.
The day Lieberman announced he would not seek re-election, McMahon wrote this in a Facebook post: “I believe he deserves our respect and appreciation for bringing a strong, independent and principled voice to Washington. … Many people have asked me what my plans are. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 remains an option for me, I will spend the next few months focusing on how I can best serve the people of Connecticut.”
But while she’s focusing, it appears that she’s also trying to distance herself from the Washington, D.C., Republican establishment — hardly a popular group among Connecticut’s moderate electorate.
Nearly two months ago, Roll Call reported that McMahon had requested a private meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). While the purpose of the meeting with the Senate Republicans’ top campaign official was never disclosed, it was widely believed that she was trying to gauge support for another Senate bid.
Cornyn told Roll Call this week that the meeting, originally scheduled in December, never happened.
“I think it was a scheduling thing,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything more than that.”
And asked whether he would like to see her run again, Cornyn feigned indifference: “That’s up to the primary voters of Connecticut.”
Aside from McMahon, only former Rep. Rob Simmons is known to be weighing a bid on the Republican side. After a bizarre 2010 campaign, he was ultimately knocked off by McMahon in the GOP primary. There continues to be bad blood between the two.
Simmons has consistently bashed McMahon as a multimillionaire who has yet to win anything in a brief political career. He is expected to make a decision about his political future in March. But there is little doubt that McMahon, having captured the endorsement of the state Republican convention last cycle, would have the upper hand in a rerun GOP primary.
“I see her as the frontrunner, among the Republicans anyway,” said Lieberman ally and former state Democratic Party Chairman John Droney.
Droney said the GOP has a better chance of capturing a Connecticut Senate seat in 2012 than it did in 2010.
The 2010 contest for former Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D) open seat effectively pitted McMahon against an incumbent, Droney said. Blumenthal was basically a household name, having served as the state attorney general for two decades. Droney said the 2012 race could be far easier for her.
“I think she’s a very good candidate. She spent the money to get the name recognition statewide. And she exited very gracefully,” Droney said. “She lost, ran a bunch of ads, which were pretty classy if you want the truth. I know she’s distancing herself from wrestling. And this time, she won’t be running against an incumbent.”
Roll Call Politics rates this race Leans Democratic, and her indecision has had little effect on the Democratic side.
Longtime Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (D) jumped into the race in late January, and Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) followed suit the day after Lieberman made clear his intention not to run again. And the field could grow.
Others to watch include Edward Kennedy Jr. (D), son of the late Senator and an investment banker who helped top-of-the-ticket Connecticut Democrats in 2010. Former state Treasurer Frank Borges (D), a centrist with strong connections in the investment community, has also been courting Democrats, including Droney. And Rep. Joe Courtney (D) is expected to announce his intentions by the end of the month.
Droney suggested that Murphy, popular among Washington Democrats, has work to do back home. “The people in Congress always think they’re in better shape than they are,” he said.
And the messier it gets on the Democratic side, the better chance McMahon will have. If she runs, that is.