McMahon: It’s all about turnout

SIMSBURY-The Republican women’s “wine tasting social and tea cup auction” in this affluent town was not exactly the subdued affair one might expect, thanks to the volatile Republican Senate contest.

Front-runner Linda McMahon arrived first, with a camera crew from ABC’s Nightline in tow, recording her last weekend on the campaign trail before Tuesday’s primary. One of her two rivals, investor Peter Schiff, was only a few minutes behind, disembarking from a gigantic RV with an oversized photo of the candidate emblazoned across the side.

“It’s a good billboard,” Schiff said, not to mention a comfortable way for him and his finance to crisscross the state in a last push before Tuesday’s vote.

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Linda McMahon chats with a participant at a Republican wine-tasting party (Deirdre Shesgreen)

In many ways, the GOP showdown for the Senate seat was set to close the same way it began-with plenty of fanfare, lots of money, and an odd twist here and there. This weekend’s twist? As McMahon and Schiff worked the crowd in Simsbury and then raced off to other events, the third GOP candidate, Rob Simmons, was speaking at an event honoring Nathan Hale, the 21-year-old Yale student executed by the British as a spy during the Revolutionary War. Not exactly a rousing campaign rally, but perhaps fitting for Simmons, an ex-CIA agent who only resumed campaigning a couple of weeks ago.

Some GOP voters, meanwhile, were scratching their heads at the choices they face come Tuesday, and were also girding for a hard-fought, nasty general election.

Margie Gardow, a 76-year-old homemaker from Simsbury, said she would like to vote for the “tried-and-true” candidate in the race-Simmons, a former Congressman from the 2nd District. But she’s not going to, because she worried he’d fall victim to voter disgust with political incumbents in the general election. So she’s torn between McMahon and Schiff.

Gardow grilled Schiff about how he would stop runaway spending in Washington, and he gave her an earful about how Republicans in Washington had betrayed conservative principles and he would not. “I’m not going to compromise on anything,” Schiff said, adding that he would filibuster any effort to raise the debt ceiling as a way to cap new spending.

McMahon saved her jabs for Democrat Richard Blumenthal, saying he would offer the “same politics, new suit” as retiring Sen. Chris Dodd. “We have the opportunity … for the first time in decades, to send a Republican to Washington,” she told the Simsbury crowd, as they munched on cheese cubes and sampled the wine. She said she knew how to put in “sweat equity” and was in this for the “long haul.”

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Peter Schiff at the Simsbury wine tasting and teacup auction (Deirdre Shesgreen)

Schiff scoffed at that, saying McMahon will falter in a general election contest once the Democrats start highlighting questions about steroid use by wrestlers during her tenure at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the company McMahon co-founded with her husband, as well as the sex and violence featured in WWE matches.

In an interview at her East Haven field office Sunday morning, McMahon said her biggest challenge going into Tuesday’s election was neither Schiff nor Simmons. “I think it’s turnout,” she said, expressing worries that many GOP voters don’t realize there is a primary and that some normally reliable voters will be away on vacation come Tuesday.

With $22 million of her own money invested in the race, McMahon’s voter turnout operation was running on all cylinders. In the East Haven office, about 20 volunteers equipped with iPads were using a sophisticated computer program that automatically dialed one registered Republican voter after another.

With a short script about McMahon’s campaign on their screen, campaign workers asked whether and how respondents were going to vote on Aug. 10 and quickly put the answers into a campaign database. A McMahon aide estimated that, heading into this final stretch, the campaign was making about 20,000 such calls a day from its 7 field offices across the state.

McMahon, meanwhile, made dozen campaign stops over the weekend, hitting the Greczyk Farm in New Hartford, the Mahrajan 51st Annual Lebanese Heritage Festival in Wolcott, and the SoNo Arts Celebration in Norwalk.

“We’ve got to put the pedal to the metal all the way through Tuesday,” she told a handful of Republican supporters in New Hartford, before taking a tour of the Greczyk farm and (somewhat reluctantly) biting into a cob of fresh-picked raw corn.

Many voters she met seemed won over by her pitch that she would provide a strong, independent voice in the Senate. “That woman is not a career politician, and that’s in her favor,” said Roger Munck, a 70-year-old retired engineer, who stopped McMahon at the North Branford Corn and Potato Festival on Sunday. After asking about her position on abortion and a couple of other issues, Munck said he was leaning heavily toward supporting her.

But others were not so sure.

At the next stop, the Orange Volunteer Fireman’s Carnival, McMahon stopped to talk to the Gambardella family as they sat around at a table out of the hot sun. After McMahon walked away, a lively discussion broke out, with 57-year-old Bob Gambardella saying McMahon would do a great job in the Senate, and his 94-year-old father Vincent shaking his head no.

“I’m sure she’s a lovely person,” the elder Gambardella said. “But I just can’t stomach the wrestling business she’s in.” In his view, Schiff was the only one with both the substance and the qualifications for the job, he said. “But,” he lamented, “I don’t expect him to win.”