There was a time in 2012 when it looked like Connecticut might do what it had never done before: Elect a female senator.
WWE co-founder and former CEO Linda McMahon was investing tens of millions of dollars of her personal fortune trying to become the state's first Republican senator in more than two decades.
But after an increasingly negative campaign, McMahon lost to Democrat Christopher S. Murphy by 12 points. It was her second 12-point Senate loss in two years. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal defeated her in 2010 and now faces an easy path to re-election in 2016.
What earned McMahon national fame was the nearly $100 million she squandered on those two campaigns. In the 2012 race alone, McMahon's campaign spent $76 per vote, while Murphy's campaign spent $13.
Three years later, McMahon may be done running for office herself, but she’s not done with politics.
Notoriously media shy — she recently canceled an interview with a local columnist that her own PR team had set up, and she declined to sit for editorial board meetings during her 2012 primary — McMahon would not speak to CQ Roll Call for this story.
But reviews of her political contributions, as well as conversations with Republicans in Connecticut and around the country, reveal a failed candidate still engaged in the GOP — and not just as a big donor in Connecticut.
"She has a real role in the party,” said 2012 McMahon campaign manager Corry Bliss, who is now managing Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election. “She has set an example for other women to get involved in the Republican Party.”
This year McMahon has been on the co-hosting committees for two fundraisers for Chris Christie’s Leadership Matters for America PAC, and she spoke at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua, N.H., where she urged the party to “come together under a big tent.”
She’s given $122,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and another $32,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to Open Secrets data. Federal Election Commission records show that she made a single $100,000 contribution to Boehner for Speaker, a joint fundraising committee, in April.
“Linda brings unique perspective and experience to politics that is invaluable to us at the NRSC,” said Deputy Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin. “Her commitment to House Republicans will continue to help our efforts to maintain and gain our historic House majority,” NRCC communications director Katie Martin added.
Those donations pale in comparison to the $1.15 million she gave to Joe Ricketts’ Ending Spending Action Fund in three increments leading up to the 2014 midterms and the $800,000 she gave to American Crossroads in two increments in 2014.
Her 2014 campaign contributions paint a picture of the kind of Republican she backs.
Besides giving to almost all of the GOP nominees in last cycle’s most competitive Senate races, she donated to a smattering of female and northeastern Republicans, including Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Massachusetts GOP candidate Richard Tisei. She’s also strongly supported GOP leadership, giving to the campaigns of Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, as well as to the Congressional Leadership Fund in the last cycle.
“As a businesswoman, she has a good voice to bring to bear on things,” said Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who received the maximum $5,200 contribution from McMahon in 2014 and met with her when she was running for Virginia's 10th District. “Actually, she’s someone I need to be visiting with more,” the freshman Republican told CQ Roll Call.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Portman are the only two candidates to whom McMahon has directly contributed this year, although she's given more than $20,000 to McSally through a joint fundraiser committee called Winning Women 2016. And the 2016 cycle is still young.
McMahon is politically connected in Connecticut, where she’s well respected for her charitable work on behalf of women and families and veterans.
August Wolf, the only Republican who has already announced his candidacy against Blumenthal, told CQ Roll Call he has been in touch with McMahon, who, like him, is from Stamford. He said they've scheduled another meeting to “talk more in depth” later this month.
McMahon’s close to a number of female state legislators who praise her for fostering connections among Connecticut’s GOP women. “She appreciates individuals like myself when we have tough races,” state Sen. Toni Boucher told CQ Roll Call. “We depend on those who have quite a bit more means to run.”
State party chairman J.R. Romano called McMahon a “tremendous asset” to the party, but not all Nutmeg State Republicans think she should be involved in the day-to-day business of helping Connecticut send a Republican to Washington.
“It’s hard for her to be a mentor on a successful campaign strategy because she hasn’t won,” said former Rep. Rob Simmons, who lost the GOP nomination to her in 2010.
“McMahon had no qualifications when she bought her nomination,” former Sen. Lowell Weicker told CQ Roll Call. “It’s clear that the GOP selected her because she had her own money.”
Money wasn’t enough in a state where both unaffiliated voters and Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
“Self-funders can buy a lot of things — you can even buy a small political party in Connecticut — but you cannot buy a general election,” Simmons said.
McMahon knew she’d have to win over Democratic voters, particularly women wary of her WWE tenure . In 2012, she ran ads featuring voters who said they were voting for President Barack Obama and her, prompting Obama to cut his first ad of the Senate cycle endorsing Murphy just days before the election.
But getting a GOP foothold in Connecticut requires much more than what TV spots can buy, Weicker said.
“I’m not giving her advice, but whatever it is — it shouldn’t be money; she has money — it should be real involvement,” he said, emphasizing that the party needs to orient itself toward the state’s urban areas and build up a new generation of GOP leaders at the lowest levels of elected office.
To Simmons, though, that’s McMahon’s strength.
“With all due respect, what she brings to the table is substantial resources for candidates who do have some expectation of winning.”
“I don’t degrade that all,” he added, “I think it’s really important. I wish she’d done that in 2010; we could have beat Blumenthal.”