Norwalk — The headliners for Republican Linda McMahon at a women’s rally Saturday were former Gov. M. Jodi Rell and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, all GOP women who have made it in what Kathy McShane called the boys club of American politics.
But it was McShane, a previously apolitical women’s business coach who now promotes McMahon as one of her “buds,” who best embodied how McMahon’s stock has risen among the voting bloc that soundly rejected her Senate candidacy in 2010 — women.
“So many of you have told me how relatable she is and how she is a lot like — you know that neighbor you like to have a cup of coffee with when you’re not feeling so good?” said McShane, the chairwoman of Women for Linda.
Her audience of women signaled agreement with knowing laughter and a smattering of applause.
“You’ve met her in living rooms and across kitchen tables,” said McShane, who has the confident, convincing manner of someone who coaches women in business for $225 an hour. “And when we spend time with her, I don’t know about you, ladies, but I am so jazzed after.”
This time, the applause was louder.
Two years ago this month, McMahon led Attorney General Richard Blumenthal by a single percentage point among male voters in the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd. But she didn’t connect with enough women like Kathy McShane.
The women of Connecticut preferred Blumenthal over McMahon, a wealthy co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, by a stunning 15 percentage points, contributing to her eventual 12 percentage point loss on Election Day.
Not only did women refuse to vote for McMahon, a significant majority didn’t much like her, either. After spending $50 million to promote herself, 96 percent of women formed an impression of McMahon: but only 36 percent said it was favorable; 60 percent, unfavorable.
The rally Saturday in a hotel function room was a high-profile event to publicly celebrate and solidify McMahon’s turnaround among women in her 2012 Senate race. Her 15-point gender gap in the Quinnipiac poll of September 2010 has shrunk to four points.
Forty-three percent of women now view her favorably, compared with 36 percent who see her unfavorably. Over two years, that is a net gain of 31 percentage points, from a favorable rating of minus-24 to a plus-7.
“I think people, women are just getting to know me,” McMahon said after the rally. “They didn’t get to know me well enough during the first campaign, and I think they are getting to know me, what I stand for, who I am.”
Connecticut never has seen a candidate with the resources of McMahon, whose dollars give her an advantage in television, radio and Internet advertising over her lesser-known opponent this year, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy. They are competing to succeed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is retiring.
But McMahon and McShane say an important staple of the 2012 campaign is more face-to-face campaigning with women. McMahon has held nearly 200 “conversations with Linda,” informal living-room and kitchen conversations with women over coffee.
“These ‘conversations with Linda’ that we’ve had all over the state and the women’s coalition for Linda, on a grass-roots effort, has a made a huge difference,” McMahon said. “It gets me in front of them. It gives me an opportunity to sit and to chat with them.”
McMahon emphasized the personal in her remarks to the crowde.
“I’ve walked in your shoes,” McMahon told them. “I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother. I’m also a daughter. I know what it takes to have that guilt feeling when you leave your child at home that morning with a fever. Or you can’t make opening night of the school play, because you’ve been called away to do something else.”
As McMahon emphasized a connection with working women “who juggle life,” she quickly pivoted to praise stay-at-home moms, “You are the ones we need to applaud today.”
The presence of Murkowski and Collins underscored that McMahon can be a groundbreaker: No woman has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut.
Women hold only 17 of 100 seats.
“I am only the 33rd female to serve in the U.S. Senate since its founding,” Murkowski said. “Susan, what are you?”
“Fifteen,” Collins replied.
“Fifteen! I believe it takes more female leadership,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski told the crowd they are on the verge of making history.
“Back in Washington, D.C., there is a buzz going on about Connecticut right now,” Murkowski said. “We didn’t think this was going to happen.
“You can feel the energy of this campaign,” Collins said.
The last Republican to win a Senate seat in Connecticut was Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who won his seat in 1970. But, if anything, the terrain has grown worse for a Republican, as the GOP Senate leadership is far to the right of Republicans in Connecticut.
McMahon clearly wants to be seen in the mold of Collins and Murkowski, not Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“I tell you why I like these ladies, because they are not a rubber stamp for anybody’s policies,” McMahon said. “They’re independent thinkers. That’s the kind of senator I will be.”
But the Murphy campaign is emphasizing that even moderates like Collins and Murkowski have felt pressure to support their leadership on social issues, such as the Blunt Amendment allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage if they personally object to birth control.
And a victory by McMahon could tilt the Senate into Republican hands. Democrats now hold a 53-47 majority.
McMahon, who calls herself pro-choice, has said she would have voted for the Blunt Amendment, and she supports some restrictions on abortion, such as a parental notification law for minors and limits on late-term abortions. If Murkowski had it to do over again, she said Saturday, she would have opposed the Blunt Amendment.
“Back home, it was being viewed as a direct attack on women’s reproductive rights, on their ability to access contraception,” Murkowski said.
McMahon told her audience she is in no way anti-woman, as charged by the Murphy campaign.
“I am a woman,” she said. “Why on earth would I be against women?”