It was the most expensive political contest in the state's history, and one of the nastiest and most colorful. But in the end, Tuesday's election for the U.S. Senate was as easy a win for Democrat Richard Blumenthal as had been predicted at the start.
Led by strong support from women and unaffiliated voters, Blumenthal notched a decisive victory over Republican Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who poured at least $45 million of her own money into her first campaign for public office.
Blumenthal immediately took a jab at McMahon as he appeared before several hundred of his supporters at the Hartford Hilton just before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"I have something money can't buy, I have you,'' he said to sustained cheers. Repeating a line that became one of his standard attacks, he added, " Connecticut today had an election, not an auction."
The crowd reacted with enthusiasm and Blumenthal softened his tone a few moments later. "To my opponent, I extend a hand after a tough and difficult campaign," Blumenthal said, adding that all sides needed to work together.
Across town at the Connecticut Convention Center, McMahon told supporters that they should be proud to have drawn attention to important issues. "And don't think I'm going to stop pushing," she said, to roars of "Linda! Linda!"
With her daughter, Stephanie, by her side, and her husband, Vince, standing farther back, McMahon said she had spoken to Blumenthal. "I have told him it was a good race," McMahon said, to the noisy disapproval of some of her supporters.
"No, no, no," she said, quieting the crowd, before telling them they should support all of the newly elected officials "because if they succeed, we succeed."
For Blumenthal, the state's longtime attorney general, the victory fullfills an ambition long stymied by the fact that other Democrats already held the state's two Senate seats. The man who repeatedly spurned opportunities to run for governor stepped into the Senate race in January just hours after the battered incumbent, U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, announced he wasn't seeking reelection.
At first, it didn't look like it would be much of a battle: Blumenthal led McMahon by a margin of almost three to one in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted shortly after he entered the race.
But McMahon made it a contest. First there was the May disclosure in the New York Times that Blumenthal had misstated his military experience, falsely claiming to have served in Vietnam. The McMahon campaign, with its crack opposition research team, quickly took credit for tipping the Times off to a videotape of Blumenthal's misstatement.
Then after McMahon wrested the GOP nomination away from the one-time frontrunner, former congressman Rob Simmons in the August primary, she launched an aggressive advertising blitz and Blumenthal's lead began to dwindle.
It was a disagreeable campaign, one in which policy differences often played a secondary role to personal attacks. Voters learned a great deal about the business practices of McMahon's company and Blumenthal's military service and less about where the candidates stood on key issues. Both Blumenthal and McMahon showed a reluctance to take stands on any issue that was vaguely controversial and each operated, to some degree, in a bubble, shielded from the press by a cadre of campaign staffers.
McMahon's advertising emphasized her career as a CEO, defining her image, and tried to rewrite Blumenthal's. Through a relentless advertising, her campaign recast the popular attorney general's public persona, so that he'd been seen as a cagey liar prone to inflating his military record instead of a tireless advocate for the people. For a while, McMahon's strategy appeared to work. Blumenthal, reeling from what was the first deep scratch in the veneer of his carefully honed image, went underground. McMahon stepped up her attack and by late September, Blumenthal's lead had fallen to 3 percentage points.
Ultimately, though, McMahon couldn't overcome history: Connecticut has not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1982. She had trouble with unaffiliated voters and was unable to win over women, despite the fact she would have become the first female senator in the state's history. Some women were turned off by some of the racier images of WWE, others didn't like her aggressive advertising campaign.
Ideologically, McMahon is a middle-of-the-road Republican who believes same-sex marriage ought to be left to the states and who favors abortion rights (although she believes minors ought to have a parent's permission before undergoing the procedure). Early disclosures that she donated thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in past elections – and didn't vote in the 2006 general election and the 2008 Republican primary -- gave credence to those who dismissed her as a dabbler and a means to gain respectability.
But over the course of 13 months, McMahon impressed many with her willingness to work. She crisscrossed the state, attending fairs and walking main streets, and making personal connections with voters.
Blumenthal is more of a populist than a doctrinaire liberal: on the campaign trail, he often came across as a combination of Bruce Springsteen and former TV consumer advocate Mike Boguslawski (who was known for the catch pharse, "I'm in your corner").
In a year when being a Democrat appeared to be a liability, even in a blue state like Connecticut, Blumenthal played up his independence. He expressed his opposition to the bank bailouts championed by President Obama and Dodd. McMahon said she would have voted for the bailout while "holding my nose."
One of the sharpest policy difference between the two candidates involved the Bush tax cuts; McMahon believes they should be extended for everyone while Blumenthal said the cuts should expire for upper-income earners – households with incomes over $250,000.
There were contrasts in style as well as substance. McMahon often appeared stiff on camera – her occassional forays into the wrestling ring are studies in akwardness – yet in person, she exuded Southern warmth. The daughter of two civil service employees, she grew up middle class in North Carolina and graduated from East Carolina State University. Together with her husband Vince, she helped build a wrestling empire. Along the way, the McMahons went bankrupt and lost everything – a biographical detail that, in these recessionary times, became an integral part of her narrative, even though she provided few details.
Blumenthal is from Brooklyn. He attended Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude and was not the captain of the swim team, despite some reports to the contrary, though he did swim competively. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School and served as U.S. Attorney before becoming the state's attorney general in 1990. A lawyer by temprament and training, Blumenthal is deliberate and cerebral. The New York Times famously referred to him as "charmless" in its endorsement editorial, though those close to Blumenthal dispute the characterization, saying he can be quite charismatic in person.
The mood at Blumenthal's victory celebration was upbeat, but subdued. McMahon had pulled close in the polls several weeks ago, but Blumenthal's camp grew more confident as recent polls showed his lead holding steady. This past weekend, he was joined on the campaign trail by both President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton, garnering him flattering front-page photos and nightly news reports just before the election.
Bill Washington is the kind of voter McMahon had hoped to sway with allegations that Blumenthal lied about his service during Vietnam. But Washington, a retired U.S. postal service worker and a Vietnam vet, instead spent his time leafleting and making phone calls for Blumenthal.
"Connecticut couldn't be luckier to have Mr. Blumenthal representing it in the Senate," he said, nursing a drink as he waited for his candidate to arrive at the Hartford Hilton Tuesday night.
At her headquarters at the Connecticut Convention Center, McMahon coyly ducked the question of whether she would ever run for office again.
"Oh, I don't know," she said with a smile.
Maybe another Senate run in 2012?
"Ask me in 2012."
McMahon did say she did not intend to return to the WWE. She hopes to work with state officials, particularly in the area of promoting job growth.
She said she considered the tens of millions of dollars she spent on the race to have been a worthwhile investment for the people of Connecticut. And then, sounding something like a politician, she said she hoped her campaign had highlighted the need to reduce the size of government, cut spending, pay down the debt and put people back to work.
"I absolutely do believe that we have Washington listening more," she said. "And hopefully we have our state legislature listening more."
Staff writers Matthew Kauffman and Mark Spencer contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times