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Murphy survived big-bucks drubbing to trounce McMahon

Published 3:36 pm, Thursday, November 8, 2012
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Talk to U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy about his battle for promotion to the Senate, and he sounds like a candidate giving the media the expected lines, unwilling to dwell publicly on how brutal it might have been.

"Yeah, this was my toughest race," Murphy, a veteran of three congressional campaigns, said after Tuesday's victory over Republican Linda McMahon.

The Democrat may not show it, but there is a hint of shell shock in the voices of the weary, but ultimately vindicated partisans who aided Murphy.

Two weeks out from Murphy's five-way primary, McMahon, a former professional wrestling executive, began blanketing the airwaves and filling mailboxes with advertisements intended to sour voters on her opponent before he could introduce himself.

"That was like, 'Wow, game's on,' " Steve Jewett, a Murphy adviser, recalled. "She had a series of hits waiting for us."

McMahon delved into Murphy's legislative committee attendance and accused him of being a loafer.

Prior to his election to Congress, Murphy missed mortgage and tax payments, so McMahon also labeled him a deadbeat.

And since he received a home equity line of credit afterward, Murphy was -- in McMahon's narrative -- a deadbeat who received favorable treatment from his community bank because he is a politician.

Unable to match her resources, the frustrated Murphy camp had to hunker down, striking back through free media, waiting for the election to draw closer and for help to arrive.

Michael Cacace, a Stamford lawyer, knew the drill. Cacace in 2010 chaired Democrat Richard Blumenthal's campaign for U.S. Senate -- McMahon's first foray into politics, when she spent $50 million trying to tarnish Blumenthal's reputation and lost.

"Linda McMahon's negative polling numbers were so high both in 2010 and in 2012 that it was almost impossible for her to win this year," he said. "The only path to victory for her would have been to make her opponent more unpalatable to the voters."

And McMahon succeeded for a time, according to summer polls. But by late September, Murphy began to rally with help from friends like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which sent staff and money to Connecticut.

"When I took over the chair at the DSCC, we had a very large map, a lot of challenges handed to us," U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said in a post-election conference call with the media Wednesday. "I told everyone I was going to fight to make sure we had a chance in every state. Connecticut clearly was an open seat ... Chris Murphy stepped up and moved forward, and we were ready to be there with him."

But Murphy was also aided by McMahon. Jewett said her confusing comments about sun-setting Social Security, coupled with a few missed tax payments of her own, and an 11th-hour effort to pay back creditors owed money for the past 30 years undermined the credibility of her attacks on Murphy.

Jewett also cited the decision by the McMahon family's company, WWE, to begin removing from the Internet controversial footage of older matches that occurred before the company's programming was rated PG.

The WWE videos -- considered old news by some after Blumenthal used them in 2010 -- were suddenly relevant again.

In the meantime, said Chris DePino, a former state GOP chairman, McMahon appeared to have peaked too early, but she continued spending on advertising.

"I don't mean any disrespect to her campaign and the way she ran it. It was vigorous, spirited, forced the debate," DePino said. "But I think a lot of it was over the top at the end. Too much of one thing is not any good."

Murphy further helped his case with a quartet of strong debate performances. But Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said Murphy was not necessarily winning over voters as much as they were moving away from McMahon.

"She faded," he said.

And because McMahon was trying to woo independents and some Democrats, in the days before the election two Democratic superstars came to Murphy's aid.

Former President Bill Clinton stopped at a rally in Waterbury and President Barack Obama filmed a television commercial endorsing the congressman for Senate.

Murphy's campaign also credits its ability to get out the vote.

"We knew this was going to be a tough race," Murphy said. "We also had confidence we would pull it out."