Pinning down Connecticut

(Zachary Schiller/YH Staff)

On Sun., Oct. 28, I turned left onto a back road behind the Watertown, Conn.’s McDonald’s and quickly pulled into Global Plastics Recycling, a small local factory. Linda McMahon, the former President and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment who is currently running for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat, was holding a rally. I walked into Global Plastics through a delivery garage to check myself in at Job Creators for Linda and found myself milling about in the middle of a factory floor, heavy machinery flanking me on both sides. It’s a room where hard work happens daily. A small stage sat at the front of the room, and refreshments and McMahon merchandise were offered in the back while inoffensive jazz played in the background.

Two hours later, and just a 10-minute drive away, the Democratic candidate, Representative Chris Murphy, held an event of his own in Waterbury, Conn.’s Palace Theater. It was a strikingly different affair. The police had shut down part of East Main Street for the event, and a line of people crowded outside the theater, waiting to fill one of the 2,300 seats in the opulent auditorium inside. Before I took my seat, I had the option to buy concessions in the massive foyer. The most prominent Connecticut politicians, both state and federal, had come to speak. But the headliner had been brought in from out of state: former President Bill Clinton, LAW ’73, was visiting Waterbury to give the keynote address. Complete with a group of local children leading the pledge of allegiance, the event was the quintessential big-time political rally.

The stark contrast between the two rallies is appropriate considering the pivotal choice facing Connecticut residents on Tues., Nov. 6, when voters will elect either Democrat Chris Murphy, a veteran Connecticut politician, or Republican Linda McMahon, a successful Washington outsider from the business world. Of the 33 Senate seats that will be filled in the November elections, only ten, one of which is Connecticut’s, still look like they might go either way, red or blue. The outcome of these races could shift the chamber’s balance towards either party, with significant impacts on everything from the fate of the Affordable Care Act to the confirmation of new Supreme Court justices.

The race between Murphy and McMahon is one of the most important in the country, and it remains very close. Neil O’Leary, mayor of Waterbury, opened the Democratic rally on Sunday with something of a benediction: “This election is the most important election in our lifetime. Don’t make any mistake about that.” Hyperbole aside, he has a point.

The 2012 Connecticut race began on Jan. 19, 2011, when Senator Joe Lieberman, MC ’64, LAW ’67, announced his retirement from Congress. In his 24 years in the Senate, he has become one of the most prominent and controversial figures in the body’s recent history. He ran as the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate with Al Gore on the Democratic ticket in 2000, and then for president in the Democratic primary in 2004. But Lieberman is far from your average Democrat. Many people know Lieberman today for his consistently conservative stance on defense policy; even more know him for his 2008 endorsement of the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.

In the 2006 Senate race, Lieberman lost in the Democratic primary; undeterred, he ran as an Independent and won with 49.7 percent of the vote, ending the state’s 17-year trend of sending two Democrats to Washington. His victory is a testament to the peculiar nature of Connecticut politics. Though the state usually votes blue, there is a fierce loyalty to politicians the voters know well. Lieberman’s departure from the Senate presents a rare window of opportunity for both candidates seeking his empty seat.

For Democrats, Lieberman’s retirement presents an opportunity to send a more reliable party member to the chamber. But Lieberman’s handy defeat of the Party’s nominee last election is a good reminder that electing a Democrat in Connecticut is far from a done deal. Capitalizing on some of the state’s conservative tendencies that yielded votes for Lieberman, the McMahon campaign draws strong support from fiscal conservatives and voters who prioritize of national security. Others, like Lou Frino, a retired veteran I spoke to from Watertown, Conn., see Lieberman’s independent streak in McMahon. “Usually the Congresspeople from Connecticut have been pretty independent,” he said, adding that he sees that legacy of independence on the Republican ticket.

Lieberman hasn’t endorsed either candidate. It’s difficult to say how his long relationship with Connecticut politics will affect the race. Lieberman’s seat doesn’t carry much symbolic power, which is why some (politically active citizens), like Yale College Democrats President Zak Newman, JE ’13, expect the influence to be minimal. “Joe Lieberman isn’t Ted Kennedy,” Newman said. “His seat doesn’t have that kind of legacy.” Nonetheless, voters like Frino will be looking for that streak of independence Lieberman brought to the table for 24 years as they cast their ballots.

For McMahon to win the election, it is crucial that she swing the independent-minded voters, and to do so, she will need to appear moderate. This strategy has been the subject of controversy after a commercial her campaign aired that showed a veteran who was planning to vote for Barack Obama and Linda McMahon because of his belief that McMahon would cooperate with the President to get things done. The ad led conservatives to question McMahon’s loyalty to Romney and the Republican Party. Since then, she has repeatedly declared her support for the Republican presidential candidate, but has continued to air commercials identifying herself as an “independent-minded woman.”

Todd Abrajano, SM ’02, the communications director for the McMahon campaign, defends the ad. “Linda fully supports Mitt Romney for President,” he said. “However, there are many Democrats in Connecticut that are going to vote to reelect President Obama but are also willing to split their ticket and vote for Linda McMahon. Connecticut voters want their elected officials to be willing to compromise, and Congressman Murphy has shown he is not willing to do that, as he votes with his party 98 percent of the time. As a U.S. Senator, Linda McMahon will be a truly independent thinker who will be willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with her.” Notably, Obama leads Mitt Romney by 10 points in the Connecticut polls; if most voters hope the President wins a second term, McMahon needs to show willingness to work with him.

For voters, the most important issue in this election is decidedly the economy. “First and foremost, people are concerned about jobs,” Ben Marter, communications director for the Murphy Campaign, said. The economy overshadows and influences every other topic of debate. While McMahon has been developing her image as a moderate Republican, Representative Murphy has been reminding voters of his long record of fighting for American jobs.

Chris Murphy, who graduated from Williams College in 1996 with a degree in political science, got his first real taste of politics that same year, when he interned for Chris Dodd, the longest serving Senator in Connecticut’s history. Murphy won his first election next year at age 24 for a seat on Southington, Conn.’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and has held an elected office ever since. After eight years in state politics, he challenged and ousted Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson in 2006 to become the Congressman from the 5th District of Connecticut in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the House, Murphy has consistently voted along Democratic Party lines. Arguably his most notable achievement, as his campaign will quickly remind you, was his “Buy American” initiative. The Buy American Act determines what products the federal government can purchase, encouraging the government to purchase goods from domestic manufacturers. Murphy also led an effort to close loopholes that allowed the Defense Department to purchase foreign products when comparable goods were available stateside. In 2011, he successfully pushed his American Jobs Matter Act through the House, which Democrats tout as a victory for domestic job creation.

“Buy American” is the centerpiece of Murphy’s economic credentials. More generally, he espouses the Democratic approach to the economy: he voted for the bank and auto industry bailouts, and he supports a tax increase on the highest income earners in the country. As a general rule, if you agree with President Obama, then you agree with Murphy.

To appreciate McMahon’s approach to the economy, you need to understand her background, which is markedly different from Murphy’s. The buzz term associated with her is “professional wrestling magnate.” She majored in French at East Carolina University after marrying her high school sweetheart Vince McMahon at age 17. Early on, times were tough: the couple filed for bankruptcy in 1976 and lived on food stamps for a short period. However, through hard work, they picked themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and developed their own company, founding Titan Sports, Inc. in 1980. Titan Sports eventually became Word Wrestling Entertainment, the undisputed giant of the wrestling world. Linda McMahon was president and CEO.

Her story is an archetypal tale of American success: an entrepreneur who has seen good times and bad, ultimately triumphing through personal know-how and hard work. For some voters, her personal financial experiences—particularly her experience with bankruptcy and her ensuing success—have inspired confidence in her economic leadership ability. When I asked what Lou Frino and his wife, Alice Frino, both of whom I met at the Job Creators for Linda rally, why they were so confident in McMahon’s ability to improve the economy, Alice instantly responded, “She’s done it!” Lou added, “She’s been through a lot of crap. Yet she manages to stay above it. She doesn’t say, ‘I’m a victim.’ She’s been bankrupt, she’s paid off her bills under the law, [and] they had a good business.”

McMahon’s political record is significantly shorter than her opponent’s. While CEO of the WWE, she initiated a public awareness campaign for literacy and a non-partisan voter-registration program. She briefly served on the Connecticut Board of Education in 2009 before announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate later that year. On her first Senate campaign, she promoted the same image she does today: the business-savvy candidate who knows how to get the economy back on track. On her website, she advertises a six-step plan for revitalizing the economy through implementing tax cuts, decreasing regulation, and developing energy alternatives. Notably, she promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it will fail to reduce costs.

Both sides employ the usual political rhetoric, announcing their intentions to strengthen the middle class with tax cuts, create American jobs, and support small businesses. While McMahon’s story of financial hardship followed by business success appeals to voters on personal and economic terms, the American Jobs Matter Act attests to Murphy’s ability to promote American business interests in Congress.

Many Connecticut residents will likely select their candidate based on their approval—or disapproval—of the Obama administration’s handling of the recession. While Murphy is firmly tied to Obama and the Democratic Party’s approach to improving the economy, McMahon, without any Washington experience, represents a fresh start in the capitol. The choice will be between a declaration of faith in the Democratic economic strategy and a cry for new management in Washington.

When it comes to social issues, Connecticut has always been progressive. The state was the third to publicly fund stem-cell research—legislation Chris Murphy wrote—and has been a strong advocate of LGBT rights since 2005—a movement Chris Murphy helped lead. On many social issues, the candidates’ positions appear to overlap: both Murphy and McMahon support gay marriage and are pro-choice, though McMahon wants to limit federal funding for abortion and emergency contraception. McMahon also supported the Blunt Amendment, which would allow employers to deny certain medical services for “moral reasons.”

The most notable difference between the two candidates’ positions is on health care, which both candidates approach as an economic issue, while sticking to their party lines. Murphy argues that the Affordable Care Act will make medical insurance cheaper for most Americans, especially women, who collectively pay almost one billion dollars more than men every year for the same policies. McMahon insists that Obama’s health care reform detracts from Medicare and Medicaid, and that its repeal will make more fiscal sense. But these positions are no surprise.

Health care and its costs are inextricably tied to the debate surrounding women’s issues, especially for the Murphy campaign. Last week, Murphy held an event at Yale with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, where they both emphasized the increased cost of health insurance for women under a Republican-dominated Senate. Richards also spoke about Planned Parenthood’s economically accessible options for emergency contraception, and argued McMahon’s election would lead to an increase in costs of essential feminine health services provided by the organization. Though McMahon is pro-choice, the speakers stressed that no one who supports the Blunt amendment has any right to the claim. Their takeaway? Linda McMahon is “anti-women.”

The McMahon campaign has, not surprisingly, rejected these accusations, arguing that the important issues for women have to do with job creation, not reproductive rights. “Linda McMahon is a pro-choice candidate who supports women’s health issues and has a positive record of providing excellent health benefits for her employees when she was a CEO that included access to birth control as well as mammograms,” Abrajano said. “However, while these issues are important, women today are even more concerned with having a good job and a stable economy.”

Some McMahon supporters are openly skeptical of the subject all together. When asked about women’s issues, Lou’s wife Alice responded, “What, about birth control? What are women’s issues? Free birth control? I don’t think so!”

When Linda McMahon ran against Richard Blumenthal in 2010, her campaign outspent her opponent’s by seven to one. She still lost. Newman explained Blumenthal’s advantage to me: “When he was running in 2010, Dick Blumenthal was the long-serving attorney general of the state. Many residents in the state knew his name and knew that he’d been fighting for them as the attorney general for years.” Furthermore, Blumenthal’s name had been regularly tossed around as a potential gubernatorial candidate since 1998. Essentially, in 2010, Blumenthal had more clout than McMahon.

This time around, McMahon retains her fiscal advantage while also gaining the upper hand in terms of visibility. Though Murphy has served the 5th district for six years, Connecticut residents outside of his area know little about him. Meanwhile, Newman pointed out, “McMahon is well known after her run for the Senate in 2010 and has done a surprisingly good job of presenting herself as a moderate job creator and small business owner.” However, she is still the Republican candidate in a state that is predominantly Democrat.

The Murphy campaign has had to fight an uphill battle for public awareness, working against a formidable spending gap. McMahon has spent 46 million dollars of her own money in this Senate race—a sum that jumps to nearly 100 million if you include her 2010 bid. Marter said that the Murphy campaign’s strategy has been to combat McMahon’s resources with good old-fashioned canvassing and phone banking. “We’ve built the largest grassroots campaign this state has ever seen,” Marter said. “We’re taking our message door to door, and person
to person.”

Just as each candidate has worked to promote identities for themselves, they’ve also each taken care to strategically define their opponent for voters, largely through vicious attack ads. Voters have expressed exasperation with this approach, taken by both candidates. “I’m sick of this negative advertising,” Yolanda Giordano, a retiree voting for McMahon, said. “They should just say what they’re going to do and then do it.”

I met Yolanda and the Frinos at the job creators rally, where Joe Wihbey, owner of Global Plastics Recycling, kicked off the event with a humble speech about the value of Linda’s tax cuts and deregulatory policies to small business. A few more local business owners echoed these sentiments before guest speaker Sheila Bair, former Chairwoman of the FDIC under President George W. Bush and one of Forbes Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in the World,” lauded McMahon’s conservative economic plan. McMahon herself was the last to take the stage, touting her business experience and plan for job creation to raucous applause.

More interesting than the speakers, themselves, though, were the people who came to see them, who were, for the most part, retired and Republican. Everyone I spoke with was already an avid McMahon supporter—these were not voters who would need to be swayed. Eavesdropping on various conversations, I heard some casual inquiries about whether the Tea Party was still meeting at so-and-so’s house, but most seemed to be good examples of the independent leaning-conservative voter that form a key part of McMahon’s constituency.

One person stood out at Job Creators for Linda. Ziggy Barisha is a senior Connecticut resident who emigrated from Soviet Kosovo. He wore American flag pants, an American flag waistcoat, and an American flag tie; he carried a large American flag over his shoulder. In a thick eastern European accent, he told me that he was once arrested at Yale (though the details of his arrest were, admittedly, not entirely clear). “Ah, Yale. They know me everybody there! I was arrested there,” he said. In broken English, he explains his offense: “In New Haven they display the flag upside down. I go there, I get arrested, then the flag is raised the way it supposed to be. I stand up for the freedom.” Freedom, I learned, is particularly important to Ziggy. “You don’t see it, but you breathe it in,” he said. “We need freedom for the future generation. We have a job, we have everything, but you—” He trailed off midsentence, leaving me to ponder the stakes for my generation.

Ziggy believes Linda McMahon is the best candidate for the job because he thinks she embodies the American ideals he learned to appreciate under Soviet rule: “She made it! That’s the capitalist system. If I don’t work, how am I going to make it?…I hope you, the youngsters listen, and come and vote for her. …She care about the future, she sees something’s going wrong and wants to fix what’s wrong for the next generation.”

While Ziggy is not exactly the typical McMahon supporter, he represents a contingency of voters with an extreme sense of patriotism who emphasize the value of a capitalist work ethic—and who will undoubtedly vote for Linda McMahon in this election.

Political rallies are confusing. They’re critical to getting out the candidates’ messages, but attract few, if any, undecided voters. Everyone I spoke to in Watertown was definitely voting for McMahon, and many people I spoke to after the Murphy rally had been canvassing and making phone calls for months. Who are the candidates trying to convince, and how?

The Murphy rally seemed to be an excellent example of what a campaign rally wants to achieve. Throughout the impressive parade of speakers, which included Senator Blumenthal and Governor Malloy, applause was constant but and anticipation was high. Clinton was the main attraction, and every speaker made a point to thank him for coming. Representative Murphy’s speech hardly touched on the issues at stake in the election, and was more of an homage to a political deity. “Back in 1992, when President Clinton was giving his address to the nation accepting his first presidential nomination, I was getting ready to vote in my first presidential election.” Murphy captured the feeling of the audience and the speakers: reverence. Clinton took the stage to a minute-long standing ovation. Throughout his entire speech, which was twice as long as all the others, Murphy stood behind him on his right, basking in his aura.

The moment arguably garnered more statewide attention for Murphy than any previous moment in the campaign. Clinton is a political force of nature, a press magnet. I sat in an entire row of reporters, hardly able to see the former President from behind all the television cameras. Clinton hadn’t come to convince anyone at the rally; he was there so undecided voters could hear that he came.

Clinton spoke in endearing colloquialisms easily reduced to sound bites. “It’s the same old, same old,” Clinton said of Linda’s tax policies. Moving on to explain the problems with the Republican plan to deal with the country’s debt, Clinton put it simply: “Smoke and mirrors don’t amount to a hill of beans.” He talked about fixing cars in Arkansas and doing basic arithmetic in grade school. The crowd was enchanted. Everyone left feeling like they understood inflation and interest rates better than when they entered, and more importantly, they were guaranteed to mention the event to fellow voters in the days to come.

Representative Murphy, like every other speaker, had been dramatically outshined. But that didn’t matter. Everyone in attendance was already voting for him anyway. With nine days until the election, the Murphy campaign had played its best card for visibility.

On Tues., Oct. 30, 25 students, undeterred by Hurricane Sandy, showed up for a phone-banking event held by the Yale College Democrats. “Can President Obama and Chris Murphy count on your support on November 6?” was scrawled on the blackboard in large letters. Rachel Miller, DC ’15, co-chair of publicity for the Dems’ election committee, explained the objective for the night: “It’s about making as many personal connections as possible. It’s not as much about convincing undecided voters. It’s more about mobilizing the vote.” Ben Mallet, DC ’16, campaign director for the Yale College Republicans, assured me that the YCR will be making phone calls, knocking on doors, and putting up posters around campus in the days leading up to the election. Murphy currently leads in the polls by four points, but nothing is decided.

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