Senate race becomes a toss-up as McMahon batters Murphy

Washington - The national Democratic Party rode in like the cavalry this week to help Rep. Chris Murphy's campaign for U.S. Senate, but analysts wonder if that's enough to turn a race that's been slipping from Democratic hands.

It looks like Republican Linda McMahon has drawn blood with her attacks on Murphy and abundant promotion of herself in television ads. Polls now show she's running neck-and-neck with a Democrat who was once favored in that contest.

And on Thursday, the influential Cook Political Report moved the race from "likely Democrat" to "toss-up."

The change is a result of the effectiveness of McMahon's ceaseless attacks on Murphy, Cook analyst Jennifer Duffy said.

In an advertising blitz, McMahon has tied Murphy to a Congress that has a pathetic 12 percent approval rating. She has also called Murphy a lawmaker who shirks his duties by skipping committee hearings. McMahon has charged that Murphy is a deadbeat who failed to make several mortgage payments -- then unethically obtained another loan from the same lender.

McMahon has also charged that Murphy supports "sequestration" -- the automatic slashing of federal programs, especially defense programs, if Congress does not agree to cut $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Yet Murphy opposed the budget deal that set up sequestration and opposes deep cuts to defense.

Whether true or not, McMahon's attacks were likely unexpected by a campaign that did not appear ready to fend them off, Duffy said.

"The Murphy campaign was not lacking in confidence," Duffy said. "It has to be surprised and even in shock."

Gary Rose, professor of political science at Sacred Heart University, said "people are being introduced to Chris Murphy by Linda McMahon."

He suggested Murphy do a better job of defending himself from some of McMahon's allegations, instead of responding to them with a new attack on McMahon.

When asked why Murphy is not doing a better job of defending himself, campaign spokesman Ben Marter said others are doing it for him.

McMahon's "desperate attacks have been discredited by financial experts and newspapers around the state again and again," said Marter in a reference to the mortgage issue. "One editorial board said that 'There is no evidence' to McMahon's charges and yet another newspaper reported that financial experts say that the 'evidence does not support her allegations.'"

Rose also said Murphy "is going to probably need a super PAC" to help him level the playing field with McMahon.

Several Murphy supporters established a super PAC in July called "Connecticut's Future PAC," but it has not reported any receipts yet or funded any advertisements.

Rose said a debate may give Murphy the boost he needs.

"He's very, very good on his feet," Rose said.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said Murphy "has to find a way to get back on the offensive."

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"McMahon is doing a good job of keeping Murphy on the defensive -- and when you are not on the offensive in politics, you could very well be losing," Sabato said.

Meanwhile, thanks to the millions she's spending, Mahon has been successful in recasting her image, again through the use of saturating television commercials. She's been remolded from a tough CEO of a violent and often misogynistic business - professional wrestling -- to a caring individual who had known hardship and who anyone would value as a neighbor.

"She comes off as an agent of change," Duffy said.

On Wednesday Murphy began a counterattack, with an ad that said the image McMahon is pitching "isn't real."

Message & Media, a new agency the Murphy campaign has hired, produced the ad, which is called "Image."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also began airing an ad in Connecticut that attacked McMahon for firing 10 percent of World Wrestling Entertainment's workforce in 2009 and for supporting tax cuts on wealthy Americans.

The ad is similar to one the Murphy campaign launched in August, targeting McMahon on her WWE record and saying she would benefit by $7 million if Bush-era tax cuts for McMahon supports are extended.

The DSCC's decision to step in the fray two months before Election Day is a sign national Democrats think the Murphy campaign is in trouble, Duffy said.

"If they are spending money now, (the DSCC) realizes it has a big problem and they have to turn it around before it gets out of their reach," Duffy said.

Because Murphy was once favored in the race, the DSCC did not budget any money to help him, Duffy said.

But a Democratic source the DSCC pulled a week's worth of advertising from a New Mexico Senate race - because the GOP did the same - presumably freeing up some money to help Murphy.

And that won't be the end of the DSCC's help. It now has a "multimillion-dollar commitment" to the Connecticut Senate race, Duffy said.

The national Democratic Party is wringing its hands over Connecticut's race to fill retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman's seat because they are anxious to keep their majority in the Senate in a year there are more Democrats running for re-election than Republicans.

Although Lieberman abandoned the Democratic Party and became an independent, he caucused with Democrats.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was able to fend off McMahon two years ago when she ran against him for retired Sen. Chris Dodd's Senate seat. But the road for Murphy is bumpier.

Unlike Blumenthal, who was once Connecticut's attorney general, Murphy has no statewide name recognition. He's also been unable to raise as much money as Blumenthal, and can't afford to loan his campaign millions of dollars like the senator did two years ago.

In contrast, McMahon seems to have unlimited money to loan her campaign and she's outspent Murphy in advertising almost five to one, allowing her to run Spanish-language ads and buy time in New York's pricy media market.

In retooling her campaign strategy, McMahon has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants who have helped her focus her message and have shielded her from the types of gaffes that plagued her last campaign.

Her campaign has hired McCarthy Hennings Media, best known for the infamous "Willie Horton" ad that helped sink former Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

McCarthy Hennings Media is also working for Restore Our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney PAC that is spending millions on attack ads against President Obama.

McMahon has also hired Advancing Strategies LLC, a political consulting firm founded by Chris LaCivita, who advised the Swift Boat Veterans, an independent group that attacked the military record of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the 2004 presidential campaign.

McMahon has kept one of her old consultants, Hartford-based public relations firm, Sullivan & LeShane.

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