Buoyed by a retooled campaign, presidential coattails and lots of outside cash, Democrat Chris Murphy decisively won Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, overcoming an unprecedented $97 million in spending by Republican Linda McMahon during two seamless, back-to-back campaigns.

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy, the apparent victor in the race for Connecticut’s U.S. Senate seat. (Photo by Uma Ramiah)

The Associated Press called the race for Murphy before 8:30 p.m. based on exit polls showing the Democrat with a double-digit lead. At 8:50, most other media outlets joined AP in calling Murphy the winner. Cheers broke out in the ballroom of the Hartford Hilton as the word spread.

Supporters cheered and started to chant “Murphy, Murphy, Murphy.”

McMahon called Murphy to concede before 10 p.m.

“You have been there, and I love each and every one of you,” McMahon told her supporters at the Stamford Hilton in her concession speech. She smiled and added, “I would really rather have won, but we gave it an incredibly good fight.”

She was uncertain about her political future, other than unequivocally ruling out a run for governor in 2014.

Victor’s pledge

An elated Murphy spoke to his followers around the same time McMahon addressed hers.

“Tonight we proved that what matters most in life is the measure of your ideas, the measure of your determination, the measure of your friends, and not the measure of your wallet,” Murphy said, prompting the crowd to again erupt in cheers.

Standing before a podium flanked with top-ranking Democrats and the Murphy family, Murphy pledged fight against outsourcing jobs, to invest in the United States and to fight fo health care for everyone.

“In the most powerful, most affluent country in the world, health care shouldn’t be something you get if you’re rich enough to afford it,” he said.

“It is time to start investing in this country and it is time to bring the troops home from Afghanistan,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that what really won the election was the help of his friends and supporters and a campaign built on ideas. “Ideas matter and tonight we know that it was these ideas that won this election,” he said.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who beat McMahon in a similarly hard-fought race two years ago, described himself as the “second happiest guy in the room.”

‘Elections, not auctions’

“I’m so proud of Chris Murphy and his family for withstanding a 50-million-dollar negative attack machine,” Blumenthal said. “In Connecticut we have elections, not auctions.”

Blumenthal said he was glad to have a partner in the senate who would fight cuts to social security and fight for a women’s right to choose.

“I knew [Murphy] was going to win, I just didn’t expect it to be soon,” said Robert Marconi, of Brookfield, who was at Murphy’s victory party with his wife, Louise.

“I’m ecstatic. I like Chris Murphy, but I didn’t want to see Linda McMahon win,” said Margaret Wiernasz, of Rocky Hill. “I just feel that she doesn’t care about people. She cares about herself.”

Murphy, 39, a three-term congressman, survived disclosures of financial carelessness that kept him on the defensive for weeks in September until he finally counter-attacked, saying election of the 64-year-old McMahon could place the Senate under control of right-wing Republicans.

But it took a frantic Washington bailout: two political action committees controlled by Senate Democrats poured $6 million into the race, dispatched new strategists and Bill Clinton to Connecticut and arranged for a rare television testimonial by President Obama in the campaign’s closing days.

The race concludes a tumultuous period in state politics marked by the forced retirements of two senators with national profiles, Democrat Chris Dodd in 2010 and independent Joseph I. Lieberman in 2012, and the stunning emergence of McMahon as the state’s dominant Republican.

It was unclear if McMahon will try to play a continuing role in GOP politics as attention shifts to the 2014 race for governor.

McMahon concedes 2

By spending $50 million in 2010 and an estimated $47 million in 2012, McMahon waged the two most expensive campaigns in state history, with nearly all the cash coming from her personal fortune as a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment.

“Ultimately, I don’t think you can buy elections in this state,” Murphy said before the polls closed.

McMahon said she had no second thoughts about her expensive entrée into electoral politics or how she ran her campaign.

“As I look back on the campaign, I couldn’t look back and say, ‘I wish I had done this differently,’ ” McMahon said.

Other than voting in her hometown of Greenwich, she made no public appearances Tuesday until entering ballroom of the Stamford Hilton.

Murphy traversed the state Tuesday, often intersecting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat who defeated McMahon by 12 percentage points in 2010. Blumenthal said the state likely will never see a campaign on this scale again.

“The odds are against it, simply because who has that kind of money to do this kind of negative race?” Blumenthal said.

Murphy campaigned on helping the middle class, protecting women’s rights and protecting American jobs. McMahon, who softened her image for her second run, sought to appeal to women voters and campaigned as an independent minded businesswoman who understands the economy and how to create jobs. She had her work cut out for her in an overwhelmingly blue state. The last time a Republican won a senate seat Connecticut was in 1982 when Lowell Weicker Jr. was re-elected.

Both candidates were vying for a seat left vacant by Lieberman, the Democrat turned Independent.

Focus on jobs

In GOP primaries, McMahon crushed two former Republican congressmen, Rob Simmons in 2010 and Chris Shays in 2012, as Republican voters rejected them for a woman with deep pockets, but no political or civic record. But she lost badly two years ago in the general election to Blumenthal, then a popular attorney general.

This year, McMahon ran a campaign tightly focused on jobs, stressing her business background – and Murphy’s lifelong presence in the field of politics, beginning with running a campaign at age 22, his election to the General Assembly at age 25 and his congressional victory as a 33-year-old.

With polls showing an electorate with a dim view of Congress, Murphy struggled at times to characterize his experience as an asset. McMahon began attacking Murphy on television in July, even before he defeated Susan Bysiewicz in a Democratic primary.

In September, his campaign froze in the face of disclosures he had been sued for non-payment of his rent and mortgage. McMahon claimed a home equity loan he obtained was evidence of a sweetheart deal from Webster Bank.

But the controversy faded as Webster said the 4.99 percent interest rate was 1.5 points higher than the rate given its most credit-worthy.

Murphy grew up in Wethersfield and graduated from Williams College and the University of Connecticut School of Law. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1998 at age 25 when he unseated a long-time incumbent. Most recently he has represented the 5th District.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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