SOUTHINGTON — The Tea Party may have preferred to see the full-throated, anti-government zeal of Peter Schiff in the U.S. Senate, but its adherents demonstrated Tuesday night they will accept Linda McMahon’s milder brand of conservatism.
McMahon headlined a fundraiser for Tea Party organizer and Republican state Senate candidate Joe Markley, drawing a standing-room crowd of 200 people who applauded a speech devoid of the fiery attacks on Washington that are a staple of many Tea Party events.
Unlike Schiff, who promised to heave a wrench into the machinery of Congress, McMahon described herself as a conciliator who wants to reach across party lines and make Washington work, not exactly Tea Party dogma.
No matter. The audience applauded, then lined up for pictures.
“She’s a freakin’ rock star,” said Mark Boughton, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.
Boughton was one of three Republicans on the statewide ticket who showed up. The others were Martha Dean, the nominee for attorney general, and Jeffrey Wright, the nominee for treasurer.
In McMahon, the conservatives see a well-funded Republican nominee in a position to do what no Republican has done in Connecticut since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1982: Win a seat in the U.S. Senate. And this year, that is enough.
“In Connecticut, we have two choices, Dick Blumenthal and Linda McMahon,” said Tom Scott, a conservative activist and former state senator. “And on the big issues, she is on our side.”
Scott, who led the opposition to the income tax Weicker pushed through as governor in 1991, organizing a rally that drew a crowd of more than 40,000 to the State Capitol, said McMahon is the potential 51st Republican vote in the Senate.
“There is a realization among a lot of the folks who are not establishment Republicans that, at a minimum, we need a rear-guard action,” Scott said. “We need to stop the bad stuff, and that’s why I am embracing her candidacy.”
Unlike many in the Tea Party movement, McMahon favors gay rights and a women’s right to an abortion. But even self-described social-conservatives like Neal Welch of Cheshire said social issues are “very secondary” this year.
“If we don’t control the House or the Senate or, hopefully both, there will be so much damage done in the following two years, we’ll never recover,” Welch said. “We’ll be so buried in debt. We’ll be so weak in foreign policy. It has to happen now.”
Markley backed Schiff in the Aug. 10 primary for U.S. Senate. Like many in the movement, he preferred Schiff’s more muscular and provocative style of free-market, small-government politics.
And he also had trouble with McMahon’s friendship with Weicker, who sits on the board of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company she co-founded with her husband, Vince McMahon.
But he came around after the primary, when the choice was McMahon or the Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal.
“The gulf between McMahon and Blumenthal is enormous, and she obviously has a tremendous opportunity to win this seat,” Markley said.
Still, Markley said with a smile, “I keep taking my own pulse to see if I’m selling out yet.”
Markley mentioned his initial skepticism in his introduction of McMahon, but he said she met his requirements as a candidate who believes in fiscal responsibility, free enterprise and personal liberty.
“This turnout shows the kind of excitement she has generated,” Markley said. “I am proud to support her. I support her 100 percent.”
McMahon offered only vague objections to “big government.” She listed no specifics about what she would cut, nor does she see the election as about her.
“I really do believe this election in November is a referendum on Washington and the things that are happening in Washington,” McMahon said.
Unlike Schiff, who questioned the propriety of the federal government offering social welfare programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, McMahon shuns a discussion of the entitlements that consume 40 percent of the federal budget, saying they are not a topic for campaigns.
Her first big applause line Tuesday was the mere mention she has no political experience.
“That’s a plus!” someone shouted. “That’s a plus!”
McMahon said her role as the former chief executive officer of WWE is her qualification. She described herself as a dealmaker who crafted business agreements that left all sides happy.
“I think it is that kind of an attitude we have to have more of to really bring people together, to talk with open debate, to push our country forward,” she said. “I am hopeful I can bring that aspect to my Senate seat.”
At the prodding an audience member, McMahon talked about her views on foreign policy. She offered little, other than a call for continued vigilance.
“I can tell you we are in tough times,” she said. “We have Iran, where we have, you know, Ahmadinejad, who I think really is, he is a rogue at best. And clearly, he is set on the destruction of Israel. He certainly set on developing nuclear weapons, I think under the guise of nuclear energy. But we have to really keep an eye on that situation.”
She was applauded for saying no options should be taken off the table in dealing with Iran.
McMahon was similarly vague on Iraq and Afghanistan. She neither endorsed nor criticized the Obama administration for declaring an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
“There have been a lot of lives and effort put forth in Iraq,” she said. “I hope that the stabilization forces will be able to do exactly what the program and plan is for them.”
“And Afghanistan, we are re-evaluating I think, you know, we need to re-evaluate where we are on Afghanistan to make sure the strategy that was put in place a couple of years ago is still the right strategy to be there,” she said. “How do we make sure the people of Afghanistan don’t feel that they were abandoned, but at the same time have the proper military and the proper strategy in place?”
She offered no answer to her own question.
No one seemed to mind.
Sam Caligiuri, the Republican nominee for Congress in the 5th District, told her, “You’re a rock star.”
As she paused by the exit, a man leaving stopped to compliment her.
“You’ve got all the right moves, Linda,” he said. Then he corrected himself and said, “Uh, Mrs. McMahon.”
“No,” McMahon said, smiling. “Linda is fine.”