The declared topic that brought a dozen businesswomen to a West Hartford bagel shop to sip coffee with Linda McMahon was their challenges in business. The subtext, of course, was McMahon’s challenge in connecting with them.
“We’re very hard on ourselves,” said Jody Ferrer, the president of The Perfect Promotion, a company that specializes in establishing a brand identify for products. “We have to start to support each other, encourage each other.”
It didn’t happen in 2010, not for McMahon in Connecticut or some other high-profile businesswomen seeking office, notably Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California. One blogger teased, “What’s wrong with you chicks?”
McMahon is likely to be a singular figure this cycle: A 12-point loser in the 2010 race for an open Senate seat, she is launching a second effort for another open seat after a hiatus of just 10 months. She is getting a rare do-over.
“You learn a lot,” McMahon told Ferrer and the others, not all of whom were ready sign up for new, improved campaign. “We really do have a grass-roots path to victory.”
The early glimpses of McMahon 2.0 promise stylistic and substantive upgrades, some clearly aimed at capturing more of the women’s vote, which broke heavily last year for her Democratic opponent, Richard Blumenthal.
(Early polling this year shows McMahon virtually tied among men with the two leading Democrats, Chris Murphy and Susan Bysiewicz, but among women she trails Murphy by 20 percentage points and Bysiewicz by 15.)
McMahon, who established herself as a successful marketer as the chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, says she is a committed to retail politics.
“I really found that when I can get out and talk with women, and if they have questions and they can ask me, and they can have a chance to interact with me, just like this group, they have very positive feedback,” she said.
In 2010, McMahon offered a one-of-a-kind model of wholesale politics never seen in Connecticut, spending $50 million of the fortune she derived from the multi-platform show business that is World Wrestling Entertainment.
The campaign was many things, few of them subtle.
With unlimited funds – the consensus in Connecticut politics is that $10 million is good budget for a statewide campaign – McMahon 2010 ran on two tracks, trying to establish a sympathetic public persona as she undermined her opponents, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons in the GOP primary and then Blumenthal, who had established a strong consumer-friendly image in 20 years as attorney general.
The campaign bombarded Connecticut households with $12 million in direct mail, including at least one beautifully illustrated piece that resembled a catalog for the women’s clothier, Coldwater Creek. And it seemed to take over the airwaves, spending $26.2 million on radio and television.
Blumenthal spent $8.7 million on his entire campaign.
“It was overkill,” said Adrienne Fulco, a Trinity College professor who closely followed the race. “It almost exacerbated the feeling you had that she was buying it.”
Her losing effort in 2010 ended with an example of her largesse: Republicans say she spent well over $100,00 on her election night party in Hartford.
This time, McMahon is raising funds, instead of just writing checks, acknowledging that building a donor base yields votes, as well dollars. And her campaign is organizing a volunteer network, rather than rely on a large paid staff.
McMahon says the campaign will knock on 500,000 doors
“It will be people you know in your neighborhoods or your towns or from your precinct,” McMahon said. “If you don’t know them directly, they live four streets over, and that sort of thing. I think that will have a good impact.”
Fulco said that may soften a hard image that she says was left by the advertising blitz.
“I’ve heard from everyone who’s met her that in person she’s great,” Fulco said. “She needs more retail and less of throwing the money into these ads.”
Fulco echoes what several female bloggers and political analysts said after the 2010 elections: Women, particularly those jumping from business into politics, have to demonstrate an affinity with female voters on issues.
Ideology, they said, trumps gender.
“Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman,” Gloria Steinem wrote in 2008, reacting to the underwhelming reaction of many women to the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice president. “It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere.”
McMahon got a taste of those potential conflicts over ideology along with her coffee in West Hartford at Lox Stock & Bagel, one of two shops owned by a woman, Nancy Bryant.
The circle of women represented diverse business backgrounds, though a common theme was running either a family business or one they helped found. The sometimes racy and violent programming of WWE, which polling showed hurt her with women, did not come up.
Michele Parrotta, a real-estate lawyer who walked away from a major firm to start her own practice, pushed McMahon on pay inequities, saying the latest data shows that women earn 81 cents for every dollar paid to men.
McMahon declined to immediately embrace a stronger government role in addressing the inequity, which many studies conclude is to due to factors ranging from discrimination to career choices many women make to accommodate children.
As an entrepreneur who built WWE into a publicly traded business with her husband, McMahon acknowledged later she has not faced some of the obstacles confronting female executives in corporate America.
“I didn’t necessarily have to break through a glass ceiling,” McMahon said.
Parrotta, a Democrat, might be happier with a more aggressive stance by McMahon on pay equity, but she is solidly backing the Republican, saying McMahon’s appreciation of business issues and her gender would make her an asset in the Senate.
The lawyer also said she feared that some women are just naturally tougher on female candidates, which she believes was a struggle for Hillary Clinton in 2008.
McMahon, who smiled when noting she is not often compared to Clinton, said she has no doubt that many women are treated unfairly in business.
“There are women that I network with — other CEOs, women who aren’t CEOs — who have crashed into the glass ceiling and found it very difficult to move beyond it,” McMahon said. “So I do think that there are some inequalities.”
Still, it seems unlikely that McMahon ever would consider an ad like the blunt appeal to working women used by Sen. Lisa Murkowski , R-Alaska, in her re-election battle in 2010 with Joe Miller.
It showed a man yelling through a bullhorn at a woman. It urged a vote for Murkowski “for all the times your accomplishments have been ignored while others who scream and yell get the credit.”
McMahon’s web site invites visitors to “join Linda in celebrating women in business month,” but there are no overt appeals to women on McMahon’s issue’s page, nothing that talks about pay equity or reproductive issues, including her support for abortion rights.
She is taking full advantage of her first month as an official candidate coinciding with a month celebrating women in business. Conversations like the one at Lox, Stock & Bagel are a staple of her early campaigning.
McMahon said the idea is make a personal contact with 10 women in the hope they will reach out to 10 of their friends. In West Hartford, most of the audience seemed won over, but not all.
“I’m not convinced yet,” say Bryant, who chatted warmly with McMahon, giving the candidate a tour of her kitchen.
Bryant said her mother was one of the women she knows who never would vote for McMahon over her connection to professional wrestling.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Bryant said. “I have to get behind a counter and slice bagels. She had to promote her product.”
Until the fall of 2012, McMahon will promoting Linda McMahon, a product tweaked and improved for a new season.