Stamford — The wine was still chilled and the cheese had barely begun to reach room temperature when Linda McMahon’s supporters began to celebrate her win in the Stamford Hilton ballroom — less than an hour after the polls closed.
The win was a stark contrast with McMahon’s 2010 primary win, also for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, when the co-founder and owner of the Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment carried less than half the vote, though won a plurality over two other candidates.The Greenwich businesswoman, who enjoyed a huge financial advantage over former 4th District Congressman Christopher Shays, swamped him in Tuesday’s contest, carrying more than 70 percent of the vote.
And after Tuesday’s win, McMahon wasted no time shifting her focus to the general election and her showdown with the Democratic primary winner, 5th District Congressman Christopher Murphy.
“The issue that will decide this election is who is best able to address the economic crisis that threatens our future and who best understands how to create jobs for the over 150,000 people in Connecticut who wake up every morning without a job,” said McMahon, who arrived at the Hilton at about 10:10 p.m., accompanied by her daughter, Stephanie, and by her mother, Evelyn.
“Folks, there is so much at stake in this election, perhaps more than ever,” McMahon told the ballroom crowd of nearly 300 as chants of “Linda, Linda,” were interspersed between her comments. “Washington is out of control and it is not too much to say America’s future is on the line.”
Shays told his supporters, “I really respect the democratic process and I think when you are in a contest, when you lose, the campaign has ended.”
But Shays’ comments also made it clear there were some lingering hard feelings. He added, “I do not withdraw any comment that I made [during the campaign]. And there’s a sense … I will say it this way … [McMahon’s] positions are more in line with my positions clearly than Chris Murphy.”
McMahon tried to mend fences after her win, saying Shays “ran a hard-fought campaign and I wish him nothing but the best.”
Though McMahon has spent less, to date, on this campaign than she did in 2010, she still held a whopping financial advantage over Shays.
But McMahon’s supporters said her 2012 campaign is much stronger on many levels that have nothing to do with money.
“What’s really important is Linda never stopped campaigning,” Hartford lobbyist and McMahon campaign adviser Patrick Sullivan said.
State Rep. Livvy Floren, a Greenwich Republican, said McMahon wisely adjusted her message to build support among small businesses and women. The latter group was particularly important, given that McMahon didn’t fare well among women voters in 2010.
“She paid attention to veterans, seniors, businesspeople, women — she built coalitions,” Floren said. “She’s much more relatable to a wider base.”
“It’s important that Linda tells her story,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
McMahon has participated in 125 “conversations with women,” informal meetings with groups of 30 to 50 voters, as well as another 200 meetings with business groups, Murtaugh said.
Former state Sen. David Cappiello, a Danbury Republican who worked on McMahon’s 2010 campaign, said the 2012 campaign’s softer approach has made all the difference.
“People have gotten to know Linda on a much more personal level, not just her business side,” he said. “I have never met anyone who has gotten to know her and has not walked away loving her.”
McMahon was tentatively scheduled to address her supporters at the Stamford Hilton after 10 p.m. She voted at 11:30 Tuesday morning at the North Street School in Greenwich, but spent most of the day rallying her campaign staff and volunteers before gathering with her family to watch the results, Murtaugh said.
Floren predicted McMahon also would fare well in November with new college graduates and other young voters struggling to find work in a state economy they expected would be better nearly three years removed from the end of the last recession.
“The young people have come of age in a recession and they understand that’s not fun,” she said.
“Linda’s story is one people can relate to in a bad economy,” Murtaugh said, noting McMahon has talked freely in this campaign about many fiscal struggles she faced early in life, including having to declare bankruptcy, having a car repossessed and having a child with no health insurance to protect her. “She’s been there and she understands.”
Still, McMahon’s financial advantage was hard to ignore.
The Greenwich businesswoman lent her campaign another $4.2 million last month, for a self-funding total of about $12.5 million. She has spent about $12 million and had more than $2 million left in her campaign fund July 25.
But at this point two years ago in her race against Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., McMahon had lent her campaign $21.5 million and spent $25 million — about twice as much as she’s spent in her latest Senate bid.
Shays lent his campaign $50,000 last month, has raised about $1.6 million and spent $1.3 million.
Shays, who began his gloomy Tuesday voting in his home city of Bridgeport, arrived at his campaign headquarters in Stratford shortly after 9 p.m., accompanied by his wife, Betsi, and their daughter.
Despite poor showings in the polls, Shays and his staff held onto the hope that summer primary polls were unpredictable — and that low turnout could mean he’d pull off an upset.
Upon arriving in Stratford, Shays said he’d just congratulated McMahon on her victory and told her that she had his vote and support.
Though the former congressman had attacked McMahon’s lack of political experience during the campaign, calling her unqualified, he said that wouldn’t be an obstacle toward building party unity for the general election.
Shays did say, however, that he does not respect how McMahon had conducted the race. “I think avoiding the press and not meeting with editorial boards and not being willing to debate is something I didn’t respect, but her positions and my positions are not far apart,” he said. “And that’s what I’ll focus on.”
For some on both sides of the aisle, the race for the GOP nomination was over even before Tuesday’s ballots were cast.
Both McMahon and Murphy had taken aim at each other in their radio and television ads more than a week ago.
Word of McMahon’s win had barely begun to circulate in the Hilton ballroom when Democrats at the national level began taking aim.
“Linda McMahon is a greedy CEO who made millions marketing sex and violence to little kids, all at the expense of the health and safety of her own employees,” Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote in a statement Tuesday.
“If her business record wasn’t bad enough, her support for the reckless Romney-Ryan agenda that would essentially end Medicare in order to give billionaires more tax cuts would be devastating for Connecticut’s middle-class. Everything about McMahon’s record, principles, and agenda prove that she is wrong for Connecticut. There isn’t enough money in the world to convince Connecticut voters otherwise.”
But the WWE founder also made it clear she is ready to attack Murphy’s record and platform.
“Do you want a career politician who voted ‘yes’ for the failed trillion dollar stimulus, a career politician who voted for five trillion dollars in new debt?” she asked. “Or would you prefer to send someone to Washington who built a small business from scratch, persevered after bankruptcy and worked her way back and ended up creating hundreds of jobs right here in Connecticut?”