McMahon’s ad blitz turns Connecticut Senate race into battleground

Linda McMahon, Republican nominee for Senate in Connecticut (John Woike-Pool/Getty Images)

A wave of negative ads, an ethics complaint and relentless personal attacks have turned the race for Joe Lieberman's Senate seat in Connecticut from a layup for Democratic nominee Chris Murphy into a neck-and-neck battle against his Republican opponent, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon.

The two are in a statistical dead heat while nearly 30 percent of the electorate remains undecided, according to the latest UConn/Hartford Courant poll. Significantly, more Democrats than Republicans are declaring themselves undecided at this point.

This is not only a welcome turnaround for McMahon—whose first unsuccessful bid for the seat in 2010 cost her $50 million of her own fortune—but also a fortuitous boost for the GOP at large. Murphy, a three-term congressman representing the state's 5th District, is in serious danger of losing what had been up until now a safe state for the Democrats in the national battle for Congress.

"It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Democrats hold on to a majority in the Senate without holding on to this seat," says Vincent Moscardelli, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. "This race has become enormously important."

Since the state primaries, in which she ponied up $22 million from her own pocket, McMahon has leveled her sights at Murphy, most notably criticizing him for receiving a below-market mortgage in the summer of 2008, after his home was foreclosed upon the year before. Though Murphy has denied any wrongdoing, McMahon has unleashed a slew of TV ads casting suspicion on the mortgage and, last week, filed an ethics complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

For his part, Murphy is attacking McMahon as an extremist despite her liberal positions on social issues; her massive war chest is clearly giving her a staggering advantage in campaigning.

A further problem for Murphy may be his own unfamiliarity to voters. Democratic Sen. Dick Blumenthal, who ran against McMahon in 2010, had a much smaller campaign fund but was able to rely on his own name recognition from 20 years in statewide elected office.

"Voters knew who Blumenthal was, and when he made mistakes coming out of the gate, voters could process that in context with other information about him," Moscardelli explains.

"Murphy they know less—that mortgage story has been in the news, so when [McMahon] hammers it home with all her resources, she has the opportunity to fill in the gaps about what people know about [him]," he says. "That's a huge advantage."

Among those resources are not only TV ads, but also fliers sent to voters' mailboxes. One such handout slams Murphy as "Wall Street's lapdog" for accepting campaign contributions from Wall Street banks—even though, according to FEC disclosures on McMahon's own campaign, she received donations from several of the same banks.

When asked about these common donors, McMahon communications director Todd Abrajano said, "There's a big difference. Linda McMahon is not a member of Congress, and she has not sat on the Financial Services Committee." Meanwhile, Eli Zupnick of the Murphy campaign stated that during his time in office, "Chris Murphy fought for Wall Street reform and strong consumer financial protections."

But running Democratic in a blue state still counts for something: Not only is Murphy riding on President Barack Obama's coattails, but with fresh controversy over GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's "47 percent" gaffe, he is attempting to link his opponent to Romney. Although McMahon posted on Facebook that she disagreed with the remarks, in an email sent to supporters the Murphy campaign claims she is really in agreement:

"Both believe we should turn Medicare into a voucher program, both support the radical Blunt Amendment, and both believe we should cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires—including a $7 million tax break for Linda herself—at the expense of job creation for Connecticut families," wrote Murphy.

Still, Murphy will not be drawing from as large a number of Obama supporters this year; the president's 23-point victory in 2008 has now waned to a mere 7-point lead, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

The effects of McMahon's war chest will even stretch beyond this unexpected showdown for the Senate seat: While Murphy needs money from his party to keep up, McMahon's fortune allows the GOP a shot at the Connecticut seat without having to contribute a dime. She doesn't need their help, which frees the Republicans up to concentrate on other key states as the election comes down to the wire.