Published October 01. 2012 4:00AM Updated October 01. 2012 1:37PM
Hartford - Women are getting a lot of attention in this year's U.S. Senate race.
The Republican candidate, Linda McMahon, and the Democrat, Chris Murphy, have organized rival women's fan clubs and traveled the state engaging groups of women voters in casual small talk.
A "Women for Linda" rally in Norwalk last month drew a crowd of 300 with presentations by former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and two sitting female senators: Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
"Women for Murphy" supporters recently gathered outside the state Capitol to warn about McMahon's views on women's health care. They also scolded McMahon in the latest Murphy attack ad for having "demeaned" women during her tenure at WWE.
McMahon responded to those claims in a new ad of her own last week that asks Murphy to "take a look - I am a woman."
To assess this battle over the female vote, The Day recently interviewed more than two dozen southeastern Connecticut women - at restaurants, libraries, shopping centers and senior centers - to gauge their opinions on the two warring candidates.
The majority of the likely voters admitted to still being unfamiliar with Murphy, the 5th Congressional District representative now in his first statewide election. Several women described being introduced to him through McMahon's attack ads on his late rent and mortgage payments in the early and mid-2000s and on his congressional committee attendance record.
For many of those interviewed, the Nov. 6 election is essentially a referendum on Linda McMahon.
"I think she's a good businesswoman, and I want her to take that to Washington," said Denise Pierson, 51, of New London, a registered Democrat who is ready to break party lines for McMahon. "I think the country needs to be run more like a business and not welfare."
Most other registered Democrats who were interviewed felt differently.
"I can't stand her," said Libby Nye, 72, of New London, who considers the Greenwich multimillionaire indifferent to society's less well-off. "Look at her background and how she made her money and where she lives and what she owns."
Nancy Heard, 73, of East Lyme was also turned off by McMahon's wealth, which has allowed her to pour more than $65 million combined into this race and her unsuccessful Senate bid two years ago.
"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," Heard said.
Although McMahon would be Connecticut's first female U.S. senator, her 2010 run was largely undone by the women's vote.
A Quinnipiac University poll released just before that election showed McMahon with a small, 4-point lead among men against then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, but trailing him by a staggering 25 points among women.
McMahon lost the election by 12 percentage points.
Degrading portrayals of women?
Then as now, state Democrats are attempting to highlight wrestling videos to argue that McMahon and her husband, Vince, built their Stamford-based entertainment company through degrading and abusive portrayals of women.
WWE softened its rating to TV-PG from TV-14 in 2008 and last month announced it had removed from the Internet older, "edgier footage," including a skit of Vince McMahon ordering a woman to disrobe and bark like a dog on all fours. The company denies scrubbing the video library to help McMahon's candidacy, although Democrats remain suspicious.
"As a woman and a mom, I think it's truly shameful that Linda McMahon and the WWE are trying to hide the facts from Connecticut voters about the sex, violence and mistreatment of women that McMahon oversaw," one Murphy supporter, Marie Jeudy of Newington, said in a Connecticut Democratic Party news release.
McMahon was the wrestling firm's chief executive officer from 1993 until September 2009, when she stepped down for her first Senate run. Her campaign spokesman, Todd Abrajano, last week defended the WWE under McMahon's stewardship: "During the time that Linda McMahon was CEO of WWE, thousands of women enjoyed watching the entertainment that they provided and thousands of women still enjoy it to this day."
McMahon relaunched her candidacy in 2012 with a series of TV ads presenting a softer, more grandmotherly image.
The most recent opinion polls show McMahon and Murphy in a statistical tie or give Murphy a slight edge. A late August Q-poll shows McMahon still doing well with men (8-point lead) but also much better with women, where Murphy had a 4-point lead.
Kathy McShane, chairman of Women for Linda, attributes her candidate's improvement to more women having had an opportunity to meet and chat with McMahon during a series of more than 200 "Conversations with Linda" get-togethers, often hosted in a supporter's living room.
"The last election, I don't think Linda really reached out and let women get to know her," McShane said. "Now people are getting to know her, she's been invited into their homes for coffee, she has opened herself up and she's willing to answer their hard, tough questions."
'She can't be bought'
In local interviews, several likely voters including Jennifer O'Brien, 48, of Stonington, cited McMahon's wrestling business as a reason not to support her. "Certainly there is a lack of respect for women in the ring," she said.
Others, such as Lana Utz of New London, view McMahon's experience running a successful business as an outstanding qualification for high office.
Donna Works, 70, of Old Lyme, an unaffiliated voter, believes McMahon's personal fortune would benefit constituents by immunizing their would-be senator against influence by moneyed interests in Washington.
"She can't be bought," Works said.
Murphy, who is Protestant, continues to attack McMahon for what he considers her regressive views on women's health issues. He points to her support for a Republican proposal, the Blunt amendment, that would allow employers with moral objections to opt out of giving their workers coverage such as birth control under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
McMahon has said she also wants to "repeal and replace" the entire health care law, popularly known as "Obamacare."
"Linda McMahon has said that she's pro-choice, but she's not," said Victoria Fennel of Hartford during a Murphy rally last week.
McMahon, who is Catholic, says she indeed supports full access to contraception and is pro-choice. She supports the Blunt amendment out of opposition to over-regulation of business, and opposes federal funding for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or when a mother's life is at risk.
Both McMahon and Murphy generally oppose the "partial birth" procedure for terminating pregnancy.
Despite Democrats' hard focus on women's health in this campaign, few of the women interviewed by The Day mentioned abortion or contraception in explaining their likely choice in November.
One exception was Maxine Matta, 66, of New London, a registered Democrat who says she is normally open to voting for a Republican.
Matta said she considered voting for McMahon until she received notices from groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.
"I was kind of leaning toward her in the beginning," Matta said, "but finding out her stance to a woman's right to contraception and insurance and how she's in with conservative Republicans on women's health issues, I've decided not to vote for her."
The modern notion of a distinct women's vote took shape in the 1970s, as women with interests in social issues generally leaned toward the Democratic Party, said Ronald Schurin, associate professor in political science at the University of Connecticut.
On a national scale, politicians such as former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, focused on issues of concern to women with successful results. But the appeals must appear genuine to work, Schurin said.
"If there's a perception that candidates are pandering to them in a narrow set of issues instead of the broader issues, that could have a negative impact," he said.
Schurin said it would be highly unusual for a candidate to target male voters in the same way.
"It has been the case traditionally that issues that are universal - the economy, national security, Social Security and so on - are of interest to men, and that there are no issues that are of unique or special concern to men," he said.
Suggestions of preferential loan treatment
Several McMahon supporters noted Murphy's past troubles with overdue rent and mortgage bills. They were generally familiar with McMahon's "Connect the Dots" ads that suggest Murphy received preferential loan treatment from a bank that overlooked his financial problems and later received bailout funds via the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, for which Murphy voted.
Murphy and Webster Bank deny all allegations of wrongdoing.
"He can't pay his rent, he can't pay his mortgage and yet his bank gets this $400 million loan - it's not right," said Barbara Schubler, 62, of Waterford, a registered Republican.
But Marie Lavigne, 55, of East Lyme said a few overdue bills shouldn't disqualify Murphy from the Senate.
"I really don't care that Chris Murphy missed a rent payment," Lavigne said. "He's got my vote because at this point I think we've all missed a bill payment - that's human nature."
Shari Lucas, 52, of Niantic, a registered Democrat who has voted for Republicans, views McMahon's financial indiscretions as more serious.
Lucas said her husband's business was out thousands of dollars last year once a client declared bankruptcy. When she learned how McMahon decided only last month to voluntarily pay back the creditors from the McMahons' nearly $1 million personal bankruptcy in 1976, she found it "absolutely disgusting."
"How long now she's had millions of dollars and she's never repaid her creditors," Lucas said.
McMahon was under no legal obligation to pay the debt, however, and she said that until The Day obtained a copy of her bankruptcy records last month from the National Archives she hadn't seen the documents since the initial filing.
Pam Okerblom, 53, of Groton, is a registered Democrat who isn't hot for either candidate. She disapproves of how McMahon handled the 1970s bankruptcy - "she wasn't paying any of those debts until she was forced to," Okerblom said - but is unsettled by what she is hearing about Murphy in campaign ads.
"I wish there was a third person to choose from," she said.