By Brian Lockhart, Staff Writer
HARTFORD — Former professional wrestling maven Linda McMahon capped an improbable entry into politics Friday night when she captured the Republican Party endorsement for the U.S. Senate Friday night during a raucous Republican convention at the Connecticut Convention Center.
McMahon edged former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons after dozens of delegates switched their votes at the conclusion of the first ballot. She received 737 votes to 632 for Simmons and 44 for economist Peter Schiff.
The glow of McMahon’s victory was dimmed with Simmons’ announcement that he planned to challenge her in an August primary, raising the specter of a brutishly competitive clash that could leave the eventual nominee weakened for the general election.
Nonetheless, Friday night’s victory by McMahon was “a very impressive accomplishment,” said Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy, who described it as the closest convention in living memory.
For minutes, McMahon and her family huddled in a circle, awaiting the final vote. When her win was official, she and the family took to the stage.
“This is a bit overwhelming,” McMahon said, thanking her supporters and addressing those delegates who backed other candidates. “I want to earn your votes,” she said.
It was barely a year ago that Greenwich’s McMahon first entered public life when she was nominated to the state Board of Education by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
She announced her intention to challenge U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd last September. But Dodd earlier this year decided to retire, and the Republican nominee will face Democratic nominee Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
McMahon’s victory Friday night capped the first stage of a campaign that saw her go from being treated as a curiosity to acquiring the stature of a formidable candidate. Her campaign, fueled by about $15 million of her own wealth, vaulted her past early criticism that she was ill-qualified. She also faced criticism that the World Wrestling Entertainment business she led was tarnished by steroid use and was the antithesis of Republican family values.
But she ran a forceful and effective campaign, casting herself as a successful businesswoman who knew how to create jobs and balance the books. And her financial resources allowed her to air early TV commercials and to flood voters with direct mail pieces. She managed her public appearances adroitly, and rarely made a move that wasn’t carefully scripted and executed — the hallmark of a polished WWE production.
The self-funded McMahon campaign dealt what appeared to be a major blow to Blumenthal’s squeaky-clean image after 20 years in office when it took credit for a New York Times’ story questioning whether the Democrat has misled voters about his military experienced during Vietnam.
And on the eve of the convention, a new statewide poll showed that she had erased virtually all of the once-commanding lead enjoyed by Blumenthal.
But McMahon and Simmons now are poised to continue what had become an occasionally harsh campaign between the two Republicans. A Vietnam veteran and former congressman, Simmons made no secret of his belief that his qualifications for the Senate far exceed those of McMahon. And Simmons’ aides have relentlessly portrayed McMahon as the CEO of what they describe as a morally bankrupt entertainment empire.
In her victory speech Friday night, McMahon took pains to praise her GOP rival. “Rob Simmons is a decorated military man who has served us as well as our government and our country, and we thank him,” McMahon said.
Simmons said after the vote that while McMahon has spent $16 million of her own money, he spent nothing and still achieved a very close vote. He said he believes his family, friends and supporters want him to continue the fight.
“I believe there’s a lot of time left in this campaign and I have sufficient funds to make a compelling case to voters before the primary,” he said “… I intend to stay in this race.”
And the third main GOP candidate for Senate also doesn’t appear ready to quit. Schiff said he planned to gather petition signatures so that he, too, could be on the ballot.
Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, of Stamford, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, was backing Simmons, with whom he served in the legislature and worked with when Simmons was the state’s small business advocate.
“He’s got the experience … I think he’s got a better command of the issues,” Fedele said.
But state Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said for him Simmons and Blumenthal are just too much alike — establishment, career politicians. He said the party needs something fresh and different to take on Blumenthal, otherwise it’s just “one old guy, another old guy.”
“Linda can take Dick Blumenthal out,” said Fasano, who nominated McMahon.
At 10:15 p.m., the convention had begun the round that allows delegates one opportunity to change their vote, and it appeared that Simmons was beginning to lose pledged support and backers of Schiff were switching to McMahon.
“I think it’s very close. It’s very close,” McMahon said as she came out onto the floor and a gaggle of press and supporters gathered around her.
According to one high-ranking Republican insider, McMahon had 46 percent of the vote to former Simmons’ 44 percent at the end of the first round of balloting by delegates.
For his part, Schiff said he thought that prior to the convention he had attracted the 15 percent of delegate support he needed to get on a primary ballot. He said he was dismayed that a number of his pledged delegates bailed on him.
Staff Writer Neil Vigdor contributed to this story.