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Murphy scarred but triumphant

Updated 8:31 am, Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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HARTFORD -- For the second straight election Connecticut Democrats celebrated the fact their candidate -- in this case U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy -- beat back millionaire Linda McMahon's self-funded campaign for U.S. Senate.

"Tonight we proved that what matters most in life is the measure of your ideas, is the measure of your determination, is the measure of your friends, not the measure of your wallet," Murphy said to the thunderous applause of his supporters, taking the stage at the Hartford Hilton shortly after 10 p.m.

Murphy's staff said McMahon called to concede around 9:50 p.m.

Murphy, a former state legislator and three-term congressman, succeeds the retiring U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Stamford.

The sense of self-satisfaction in the Hilton's ballroom was palpable, particularly because Murphy's victory was announced by news outlets only a half hour after the polls closed.

"I think we all thought it was going to be a tighter race because of the amount of money she spent," said Lindsay Farrell, head of the Working Families Party. Murphy also appeared on the ballot as the Working Families candidate.

McMahon invested $50 million of the fortune her family earned growing Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment into an international phenomenon during her first failed Senate bid in 2010. She was approaching an equal amount during this election.

"One hundred million and nothing to show for it," former state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said. "It speaks volumes about the sophistication of the Connecticut electorate," McDonald said.

Just before 10 p.m. Democratic leaders took to the stage in the ballroom to introduce Murphy. Among them was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Greenwich, who faced McMahon two years ago. One of the ongoing discussions among political observers and reporters has been the odd pair Blumenthal and McMahon would make were she to have won.

"I think I can say I'm the second-happiest guy in this room," Blumenthal told the crowd. "I'm so proud of Chris Murphy and his family for withstanding, again, a $50 million negative attack machine."

First returns had Murphy well ahead of McMahon. With 57 percent of the votes counted, the six-term 5th District congressman led with 424,234 votes to her 368,205.

Murphy's victory came after McMahon spent the summer hammering him with negative ads while trying to improve her own image with the voters that turned her away two years earlier.

And for a while the strategy worked. Democrats freely admitted they were more concerned about Murphy than Blumenthal because he did not share the latter's name recognition.

Blumenthal was a 20-year veteran of the Attorney General's office when he faced McMahon, and even then there were moments that it appeared his political career was in jeopardy.

As she did with Blumenthal, McMahon identified potential weaknesses for Murphy and used her army of campaign consultants to fan them into potential scandals. She hammered away at Murphy's attendance record in Congress and at missed mortgage and tax payments from when he was still serving in the state Legislature.

Reliably blue Connecticut was suddenly being rated a toss-up state by political observers.

But then the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, organized labor and others came to Murphy's aid, bolstering his own resources and giving him the opportunity to begin introducing himself to voters.

Murphy also had solid performances in his four televised debates with McMahon. And by late summer and early fall he began to pull away from McMahon in the polls.

Murphy acknowledged those tougher days during Tuesday's speech when he introduced his campaign staff to the room. He said two months earlier when some were ready to write him off, "It was my team, stood up, drew a line in the sand and said `no.'"

Democrats Tuesday attributed Murphy's victory in part to a weariness with McMahon among the electorate.

Blumenthal during a campaign stop with Murphy in New Britain Tuesday acknowledged McMahon's rise, then gradual fall, mirrored her arc during their race.

"I think there is a limit to the effect of excessive negativity. That lies and distortions have a limited shelf life when they're done to excess (and) they are exposed for what they are with the truth," Blumenthal said.

"Her high point has always been when she launched a deluge of distortion and deception and then there was an opportunity to rebut it," Blumenthal said. "A little bit like a trial, after the plaintiff presents a case, the jury may think, wow, that's overpowering. Then they hear the other side. And I think that's what happened here. Plus, just the excess. Too much. People are sick of the ads."

And John Olsen, head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, during the celebration at the Hilton Tuesday, believed the fact McMahon's ads were almost on constant rotation during storm coverage of Hurricane Sandy hurt her.

"I think the storm hurt her pretty badly. All you saw was negative, negative, negative. She had too much money," Olsen said.