McMahon swamps opponents for GOP Senate nomination

Linda McMahon won a decisive victory on Tuesday in the three-way GOP primary for U.S. Senate, ensuring she will face Democrat Richard Blumenthal in a closely-watched campaign this fall.

“For the first time in decades, we’re going to send a Republican senator to Washington,” she told about 300 giddy, cheering supporters.

McMahon strode onto the stage with the song “Eye of the Tiger,” from the movie “Rocky III,” blaring throughout the hotel ballroom in Cromwell. In a jab at her early detractors, she said, “I’ve said the support of the voters of Connecticut isn’t bestowed by the establishment or the pundits or the media. It can’t be bought. It needs to be earned. And tonight I’m humbled to have earned your support.”

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Linda McMahon acknowledges a supporter after winning the GOP Senate nomination (Deirdre Shesgreen)

With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, McMahon had easily edged out her rivals, garnering 49 percent of the vote, compared to 28 percent for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and 23 percent for investor Peter Schiff.

But in a sign of the competitive contest to come, Democratic detractors immediately noted that she had not crossed the 50 percent threshold, despite dipping heavily into her own personal fortune to bankroll a year-long quest for the nomination.

Indeed, McMahon won after spending more than $22 million of her own money and blanketing the state with television ads, mailings, and her own relentless presence: She’s done more than 600 events since first announcing her candidacy. On Tuesday night, McMahon pledged to continue that spending pace.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I would spend what it took,” she told reporters. She said Blumenthal had “20 years’ head start” in building up name recognition across the state, so she was going to need to press ahead aggressively to get her own message out.

Even as she focused on the battle ahead, McMahon also tried to heal the wounds of an intensely fought primary, making a plea for unity among Republicans and for support from her rivals.

“At the end of the day we are all part of the Republican family, the Connecticut family,” she said. “Tonight I think I speak for every Republican in this state in inviting Rob and Peter to join us as we fight to win this seat.”

Simmons conceded his off-again, on-again race for the Senate nomination with another round of mixed signals about what his role going forward might be.

Speaking from his home in Stonington, Simmons said he was disappointed with the results, but indicated that he would support McMahon. “I have run a vigorous campaign and I would argue she has done the same,” he said. “I always believe that public office is a public trust… and I call upon all the candidates to remember that as we move forward.”

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Rob Simmons campaigns in Simsbury (Nicolas Kemper)

But when asked if he would vote for McMahon, Simmons said gave a less than resounding answer. “I reserve judgment on that,” he said.

In any case, the fall campaign was immediately engaged.

Before McMahon took the stage, state Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-Wallingford, said the Senate contest was a “three-round smack-down event.”

The first round was winning the GOP nod at the convention. The second was Tuesday’s primary. “The main event is November 2nd,” Fasano said.

In a primary night press release, Blumenthal called for three televised debates before the November election, a request McMahon quickly accepted.

In Washington, party leaders quickly weighed in on what is expected to be one of the most bitterly-fought, expensive contests in the nation. With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, national Republicans said McMahon’s win made Connecticut a prime pick-up opportunity for the GOP. Democrats, meanwhile, immediately sought to highlight McMahon’s stewardship of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company she co-founded with her husband Vince McMahon.

“Connecticut Republicans today nominated a corporate CEO of WWE, who under her watch violence was peddled to kids, steroid abuse was rampant, yet she made her millions,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

McMahon punched back against those charges, saying they hadn’t worked in the primary and wouldn’t in the general election either. She said she was “proud” of her company’s success. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone watches it, but 16 million people do,” McMahon said.

She has already been targeting Blumenthal with her campaign pitch–portraying herself as the anti-politician beholden to no one-and in her mailings, including one highlighting Blumenthal’s admitted misstatements about his Vietnam-era service as intentional lies. Blumenthal served stateside as a Marine Reservist during Vietnam.

Asked if there would be more revelations to come, McMahon was coy. “Maybe,” she said.