Published November 08. 2012 4:00AM Updated November 08. 2012 11:40PM
New Britain - U.S. Sen.-elect Chris Murphy received his first congratulatory phone call about 15 minutes after the polls closed on election night.
He considered the caller a reliable source. But as Connecticut's incoming junior senator recounted Wednesday, the news he heard seemed too good, too soon.
"I got a call from (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid within minutes of the AP calling the race," Murphy, a Democrat, told reporters over his chili dog lunch in a New Britain eatery Wednesday. "He was a little frustrated with me because I wasn't accepting his congratulations. I just couldn't believe that the race could be called as early as 8:15."
The news had sunk in by the time he received a concession call from his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, an hour and a half later.
According to Wednesday's still-unofficial results, Murphy outpolled McMahon 55 percent to 43 percent with a Libertarian candidate, Paul Passarelli, picking up the remaining votes.
Murphy's 12-point spread was the same margin Democrat Richard Blumenthal enjoyed in the 2010 election against McMahon to succeed then-Sen. Chris Dodd. The Greenwich wrestling mogul spent close to $100 million of her fortune to fund both unsuccessful campaigns.
Murphy, also the state's outgoing 5th Congressional District representative, said he was pleasantly surprised by his large margin of victory, "given how rough the race was."
Pre-election polls showed Murphy with a narrower 6-point advantage on McMahon, who once led the race by as much as 3 points in late August.
"I think in the end, people got sick and tired of McMahon's attack ads, and they wanted a candidate who was talking about ideas and had some substance," Murphy said.
He said he felt the race turning in his favor during the October series of four one-on-one debates.
"Once this campaign stopped being just about 30-second attack ads and started being about a discussion between the two candidates on the issues, people started realizing that there was a real difference," Murphy said.
The future freshman senator plans to return to Washington next week to finish his congressional term. The two parties will be negotiating ways to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of scheduled tax hikes and sequestration budget cuts at year's end.
Murphy will be sworn in in January to replace Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring after four six-year terms.
"There's no way around the fact that with the retirement of Senator Dodd and Senator Lieberman, Connecticut now has two relatively junior U.S. senators," said Murphy, adding that residents should not be worried. "I think that Dick Blumenthal and I are going to be an awesome team for this state. We're going to work our tails off to make sure Connecticut gets its fair share when it comes to money and projects and policies coming out of Washington."
Murphy's future seat was once held by Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Old Lyme, the former governor and three-term Republican U.S. senator. He lost to Lieberman in 1988.
In an interview Wednesday, Weicker said McMahon's loss came as no surprise. She might have made the race closer if she had boned up on policy particulars and issues since her 2010 loss, he said.
"I think she was a terrible candidate," said Weicker, a former corporate board member of WWE. "I think she was totally unqualified to even be running for the Senate. And I think her campaign was sleazy and negative."
Connecticut's last Republican senator, Weicker believes it is still possible for a Republican Senate candidate to win in present-day Connecticut. But the state party "has obviously drifted way off to the right." To be successful, Weicker said, the GOP must broaden its appeal to minority groups and lower-income individuals.
"It shows how bankrupt the party was that someone with a pile of money could come in and buy the highest nomination that they have to offer," Weicker said. "Nobody had a record, in other words, that entitled them to the Senate position."
Murphy vowed Wednesday to fulfill his campaign pledge to maintain a bipartisan attitude. He said he is willing to strike compromises on tax and spending issues during Congress' forthcoming and high-stakes lame duck session.
"I was always very serious about the fact that Senator Lieberman's seat comes with a responsibility to be one of the people in the Senate who's willing to reach out and work with Republicans," he said.
The fall's bitterly fought contest stirred Murphy's support for a system of public campaign financing for U.S. Senate and House of Representatives races. A system similar to what Connecticut now has would make sense on the federal level, he said.
"I raised $10 million in this race from tens of thousands of people, and Linda McMahon wrote herself one big check," Murphy said. "I think we need to find a different way to finance elections ... that doesn't allow individuals to try and purchase elections and doesn't require nonwealthy candidates to spend all of their time raising money."
Murphy said he has yet to decide which committee assignments he will pursue, or whether he'll upgrade his housing situation in Washington. Since his 2007 swearing-in, Murphy has bedded down each night in his congressional office.