New Britain — On Oct. 4, Chris Murphy narrowly trailed Linda McMahon in a Quinnipiac University poll, and voters had a far more favorable impression of her than him.
Three days later, Murphy and McMahon debated for the first time, the start of what Murphy described Wednesday as a surge that took him to a surprisingly decisive victory Tuesday night in the race for U.S. Senate.
“Once voters got to see Linda McMahon and I standing next to each other talking about the issues and articulating the differences between the two of us, the polls started to move,” Murphy said.
Murphy, 39, a three-term Democratic congressman, won by a margin unanticipated by most public or private polling: Unofficial, incomplete results show him winning 55 percent to 43 percent, a 12-point margin of victory.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the margin,” Murphy said. “I’ve been consistently pleasantly surprised by the margins in the four races I’ve run. Yesterday was especially gratifying, given how rough the race was.”
Murphy met with reporters at Capitol Lunch, a burger-and-dog joint, part of a post-election tradition that brought him to various eateries in his 5th Congressional District to thank voters after every win.
With snow falling heavily, there were few voters to thank. He ordered two chili dogs, then sat down at table for a relaxed dissection of a race that began as a Democratic lock, deteriorated into a toss-up and concluded in a landslide.
It was a narrative similar to the 2010 race, when McMahon, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, was nearly tied with Democrat Richard Blumenthal around Labor Day, only to see Blumenthal open a lead in later polls, eventually winning by 12 percentage points. McMahon spent about $50 million on each race.
Murphy acknowledged that running in a presidential year was a major advantage over Blumenthal, who ran in a midterm election: Barack Obama’s re-election bid generated a strong Democratic turnout this year as the president outpolled Mitt Romney in the state by 17 percentage points.
Obama beat Romney by 260,000 votes, while McMahon lost to Murphy by 168,000, according to the unofficial, incomplete results.
Murphy said he was told at 8:15 p.m. that the Associated Press was about to declare him the victor, based on exit polling and scattered results. The McMahon campaign got the same word around the same time.
“I didn’t believe it,” Murphy said. “I said until Kenny Curran calls this race, I’m not believing it.”
Curran is his campaign manager, and Murphy said he wanted Curran’s take after seeing some actual results. Murphy said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called him as soon as AP called the race, but he told the Senate leader that the congratulations were premature.
“We didn’t start celebrating until we saw some of the results come in,” Murphy said. “I think the West Hartford results were the first, and when we saw how big we had won West Hartford, and how big the turnout was, even with the problems in the morning, we knew we were in for a pretty good night.”
Some voters left the polls without voting in West Hartford, where the wait to vote exceeded an hour in the morning, before registrars beefed up staffing. West Hartford had reducing its polling places by half since the previous election.
He carried the suburb by nearly a 2-1 margin.
He will succeed Joseph I. Lieberman. His election leaves Connecticut with two senators with little seniority. Blumenthal succeeded Dodd, who was a senator for 30 years. Lieberman was in office for 24 years.
Murphy said he and his wife, Cathy Holahan, who is a legal aid lawyer, have not decided if they will establish a residence in Washington. As a congressman, Murphy has been sleeping in his office, flying home every weekend. They are the parents of two preschool sons.
“We are totally unprepared for this big change in our life,” Murphy said. “We are superstitious enough to not to make any plans until after these races happened.”
They first have plans for a trip to Disney World with their sons and extended family, including a cousin who has been deployed overseas with the U.S. military.