The campaigns of Republican Linda McMahon and Democrat Richard Blumenthal are making overt and subtle appeals to unaffiliated women, a pool of 400,000 potential swing voters in their U.S. Senate race.
As McMahon tries to become the first woman elected to the Senate from Connecticut, she has touted her background as a corporate executive in commercials geared to professional women. Blumenthal has countered with appeals to women focused on families he has helped as attorney general.
“I can’t tell you [women voters] are the key to the election,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Obviously, they’re very important.”
Neither campaign was eager to talk publicly about any special strategies they have to court women voters. During McMahon’s primary-election night press conference, a reporter asked McMahon how she was trying to woo women and noted that, if elected, she would be the first woman sent to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut.
“I am targeting the campaign to all voters,” McMahon answered. “The issues we are discussing are affecting Connecticut families. They’re affecting men and women alike.”
Ed Patru, a spokesman for McMahon, said men and women voters are “equally focused on and concerned with the economy and jobs, and Linda’s message on economic recovery and job creation doesn’t change depending on the audience.”
But, he added, “Clearly there parts of her resume and her biography that appeal to female voters. She’s been a stay-at-home mother. She’s been a professional working woman. She’s balanced family and career. And she’s been bankrupt. So gets it because she’s lived it.”
Blumenthal campaign advisor Marla Romash acknowledged that women will play an outsized role in the election. “Women have historically voted at higher rates than men,” she said. And there’s increasing evidence that unmarried women who sat out past elections are now more engaged and likely to cast a ballot.
That said, “Dick is reaching out to every voter in Connecticut” Romash said. She added that it doesn’t make sense to tailor a campaign message specifically to women because they care about a gamut of issues–from health care to the economy to raising children.
But it’s not too hard to find gender-based appeals on the campaign trail. The McMahon campaign has been handing out bright pink “Women for Linda” T-shirts. Blumenthal’s early ad campaign was a series of warm-and-fuzzy spots featuring families he has helped as attorney general. And both sides are trying to make the most out of McMahon’s role as the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment.
For the Democrats, that means charging that WWE has marketed sex and violence to children and children and objectified and degraded women. While the Blumenthal campaign hasn’t yet raised this directly in its own ads, state and national Democrats have tried to make it a central issue.
Most recently, the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee helped to organize a group called MOM, Mothers Opposing McMahon, setting up a website and Facebook page that draws attention to some of the more raunchy WWE videos and raises questions about how WWE treated its employees.
“Dick Blumenthal’s record is of tireless advocacy for issues women care about, where Linda McMahon really has a lot of explaining to do to every voter in Connecticut, but particularly to women, who have seen content and programming that seems to applaud abusive treatment of women,” Romash said.
McMahon’s camp has tried to blunt those jabs and turn her WWE experience into a political plus, saying her leadership of WWE demonstrates her business savvy and her ability to hold her own in the rough-and-tumble world of sports entertainment.
In one of McMahon’s more explicit appeals to women, her campaign ran an ad featuring two professional-looking women discussing McMahon’s campaign as they ride in an SUV through a leafy residential neighborhood. One woman dismisses WWE as “a soap opera” and talks up McMahon’s corporate success a clear sign that she could “shake things up in Washington.”
That message is resonating, at least among some Republican women.
“She could have an adult pornography business,” said Sherry Brady, an insurance marketing representative who heard McMahon speak earlier this month at a fundraiser for the Simsbury Republican Women’s Club. “I don’t think that has anything to do with it … It’s fake wrestling. It’s entertainment.”
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said that ad was “absolutely” targeted toward women, as is the Democrats’ new MOM group — both clear signals that the women’s vote is potentially vital and in play. She said she expects the efforts to win over women to intensify as Election Day draws closer.
For now, Duffy said it is too early to say how effective these competing efforts have been. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, taken just before the Aug. 10 primary, 64 percent of female Republican respondents said they have a favorable opinion of McMahon, putting her well above her two GOP rivals.
In an Aug. 4 Quinnipiac survey that included general-election questions, Blumenthal led McMahon among women 50 percent to 37 percent. That poll showed that 60 percent of women respondents had a favorable opinion of Blumenthal, compared to 44 percent for McMahon.
But the Aug. 4 poll also showed that, for the first time, independent voters were evenly split between McMahon and Blumenthal. And Duffy noted that overall, McMahon has made steady progress in the campaign, cutting significantly into Blumenthal’s once-hefty lead-gains due in part to McMahon’s relentless campaigning, which Duffy said has helped soften her pro-wrestling image.
“When people hear about the wrestling stuff, they sort of conjure up some perception of her and when they meet her, she’s not that person,” she said. “There are not a lot of rough edges there … I don’t know if they were expecting tattoos and leather, but instead they got pearls and Chanel.”
And some women said they were thrilled to be able to support a female candidate.
“I really like seeing a woman in the race,” said Jennifer Hogan, a 47-year-old Farmington woman and McMahon supporter who says the wrestling business is “not anything that affects me.”
Brown, the Quinnipiac official, said any advantage McMahon has as a female candidate is mitigated by the fact that women tend to lean Democratic.
“Neither he nor she has a gigantic or unexpected gender gap,” Brown said. “He’s actually doing better among women than among men and that’s because he’s a Democrat in a Democratic state.”
Brown said that in this election, women voters are motivated by the same top issues as men: “The economy, the economy, the economy, and the economy.”
If the race tightens more, he said, gender may be a deciding factor. But for now, “if she’s able to win the election, she’s going to do it by winning men and women … And she’s got a ways to go in both categories.”