SOUTHINGTON — Linda McMahon kicked off her second try for U.S. Senate today at a small manufacturing company whose physical plant and young owners provided a backdrop for a campaign that is painting its candidate as a job creator, not a politician.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a proven job creator, and today I am a candidate for U.S. Senate,” McMahon said.
McMahon, 62, of Greenwich, the Republican newcomer and World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder who lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal by 12 percentage points last year, has a new staff and a new headquarters, but a message little changed from 2010.
Her new campaign is again presenting her as an outsider who understands the needs and challenges of business, a message that resonated with Republican primary voters two years ago, backed by $50 million of her personal fortune over the primary and general campaigns.
“The American dream is about opportunity and second chances,” McMahon said, standing next to Jeff and Maureen Gagnon, the owners of Coil Pro, a company Jeff founded in 1997 with one employee.
As a woman who went broke with her husband, Vince McMahon, and then rebounded to build World Wrestling Entertainment into a publicly traded entertainment company, McMahon said she epitomizes that dream.
“For the past 25 years, my husband, Vince, and I have had plenty of success is our business. And we appreciate it all the more when we think back to day we filed for bankruptcy,” McMahon said.
But her new campaign also is about a second opportunity in politics.
“I’m not starting from zero this time,” she said after her announcement. “I do have, I think, some name recognition and recognizability, so I will have more I think of a targeted media campaign. It won’t be as expansive, but it will be very targeted and focused.”
Her announcement comes two years after she resigned as the chief executive officer of WWE to launch a campaign aimed at a politically wounded U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democrat who eventually withdrew, giving way to Blumenthal. Now, it is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman declining to seek re-election.
She began as a curiosity — her first interview on CNN featured a clip of her daughter, Stephanie, knocking her to the mat with a slap during a staged confrontation for a WWE show — but McMahon quickly gained traction, becoming the favorite for the GOP nomination well before the convention in May.
But polling throughout the campaign showed she had trouble connecting with women, despite her attempt to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, a state that has had two women elected as governor.
McMahon, who generally avoided press conferences in 2010, took no questions at her announcement. Instead, she appeared via phone on three talk radio shows, then conducted a series of 10-minute, one-on-one interviews.
In her announcement, she referred today to the challenges of working mothers, and an an interview she acknowledged she has work to do to win them over. As she insisted in 2010, McMahon says they should be a natural base, and she will try a more personal approach this time.
“I think we will definitely have a different kind of media campaign as well, but as I said the most effective messaging I do is when I am out,” she said. “I will meet with more women, more women groups, more one on one.”
As far as lessons learned, McMahon shared little, other than a need for focus.
“I think we always learn from campaigning. I think I understand more how to be more focused,” she said. “But the messaging is very similar. Because I was about jobs and the economy in the first campaign.”
One other difference: the campaign this time is not pledging to spend $50 million, a figure that bought her early credibility, but also contributed to a less-flattering story line, that of a Greenwich multi-millionaire buying a Senate nomination. The campaign is not commenting on its budget.
Her colorful husband Vince, who largely stayed off the campaign trail in 2010, was not at the announcement. In her speech, she never mentioned by name the WWE, the Stamford company that provides both a business identity and ready fan base, yet also was the source of criticism from Democrats over its violent, sexually suggestive programming and the use of steroids by its wrestlers.
“It was not an intended omission at all,” McMahon said later. “I think people pretty much know where I come from. I am very proud of the company I helped grow.”
Indeed, an hour before her announcement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee already was recycling themes used against McMahon in her previous race, saying that in a Republican year voters in Connecticut rejected “a greedy CEO like McMahon who made her fortune by putting her own profits before the health and safety and her workers and marketing sex and violence to children.”
“Nothing has changed about McMahon since voters resoundingly rejected her candidacy last year, and she shouldn’t be surprised when it happens again this time around,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC.
But Chris Healy, one of three former GOP state chairman in the audience, said McMahon this time is not facing a candidate as well-known as Blumenthal, who was the state’s strongest and best-known Democrat last year, and the worsening economy makes her a more attractive candidate.
“I think her message now is more resonant than it was two years ago,” Healy said.
This year, if McMahon can win the GOP nomination, she once again will be in an environment in which Democrats are on the defensive over the economy, even though Democrats generally run stronger in presidential years in Connecticut.
She noted that unemployment has risen from eight percent to nine percent and the national debt has risen from $12.6 trillion to $15 trillion.
“It is clear to most everyone now, regardless of what political party you belong to, that we’re going down the wrong economic track, and we better get off in a hurry,” she said.
She promised a comprehensive jobs plan in coming weeks, but she staked out no specific positions today.
“I’m determined not to be a just another critic of these problems,” she said in her announcement speech.
Later, she said she preferred to see marginal tax rates lowered, but she also favored seeing tax loopholes closed, even if that meant the federal government raising more tax revenue, a position likely to bring some grief from Tea Party adherents.
“Absolutely. I’d be happy if we had a net gain in revenue,” McMahon said. “Coming from a business background, I’m not asking the government to make money, but, Lord knows, I’d like to at least see it break even.”
McMahon’s main competitor for the GOP nomination is former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, who plans to announce his candidacy next month. The other two announced candidates are Jason McCoy, the mayor of Vernon, who announced his candidacy last week during taping of Face the State on WFSB, and Brian K. Hill.
The Democrats in the race are U.S Rep. Chris Murphy, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong.