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WrestleMania in Connecticut

Having built a billion-dollar sports business is Linda McMahon’s calling card in the Senate race—it’s also her Achilles’ heel.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Barring cataclysm, Connecticut Republicans will nominate Linda McMahon to run for Chris Dodd’s vacant Senate seat on August 10. McMahon is a political neophyte. Her chief credential is that she was CEO of America’s largest professional wrestling outfit, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

WrestleMania in Connecticut

Photo Credit: Getty

McMahon is not the first figure from professional wrestling to enter politics. In 1974, Jim Crockett, who ran the National Wrestling Alliance, ran for the Senate in North Carolina. He finished sixth in a field of six in the GOP primary. And, in 1990, Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Eight years later, he was governor of the state.

But McMahon may be the first person to run for office for whom wrestling is not merely a name-recognition bonus, but rather the raison d’être of her campaign. It is both McMahon’s signal achievement and her most glaring vulnerability.

Connecticut has been tough sledding for Republicans for more than half-a-century. Since 1953, Connecticut has sent just one Republican to the Senate: Lowell Weicker. A very liberal Republican, Weicker served three terms in the Senate before being elected governor in 1990. McMahon and her husband Vince have known Weicker for many years. In 1999, when the WWE went public, Weicker was appointed to the company’s board of directors.

In the mid-1980s, the McMahons became friendly with NBC producer Dick Ebersol and his wife, the actress Susan Saint James. James got Linda McMahon involved with the Special Olympics, a cause which she and her husband have vigorously supported ever since. This involvement formed another bond with Weicker, whose son, Sonny, is both developmentally disabled and a big wrestling fan. Weicker named McMahon to the governor’s council for the World Special Olympics. 

Weicker, who supported Obama in 2008, is not much loved by national Republicans, but Linda McMahon needs all the friends she can get in Connecticut. In 2000 Al Gore carried the state by 56 percent to 38 percent. John Kerry slipped a bit, winning only by 10 points, but in 2008 Barack Obama came storming back, carrying it by a 23-point margin. First elected to the Senate in 1980 with 56 percent of the vote, Chris Dodd won reelection four times, and was under 65 percent only once.

McMahon declared for the race in September 2009 assuming she would face Dodd, increasingly unpopular and burdened by financial scandals. Dodd stepped aside in January, and the state’s longtime attorney general, Dick Blumenthal, became the presumptive Democratic nominee. But Blumenthal has been exposed as having lied—in a serial manner—about having served in Vietnam. And elections around the country have revealed a strong sentiment against career politicians. McMahon’s political inexperience has been transformed from a bug to a feature.

And then there’s the money. McMahon rides into battle with the ability to self-finance an enormous campaign operation. She has already spent $16.5 million of her own money (and the Republican primary isn’t until August). McMahon has said she’s willing to spend $50 million on the race. Blumenthal has raised a total of $2.3 million thus far. Charlie Cook rates the contest as only “leans Democratic,” which is remarkable for a Senate race in the Nutmeg State.

McMahon was born Linda Marie Edwards in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1948. She attended East Carolina University and married her high-school sweetheart, Vince McMahon, in 1966. Vince was the son of a wrestling impresario who owned the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Back then, professional wrestling was not a national product. A handful of promoters owned individual associations, which controlled discrete territories. McMahon’s WWWF dominated the Northeast, making it one of the sport’s bigger promotions.

In those days, wrestlers were essentially carnies. They barnstormed from town to town trying to sucker “marks” (what the industry calls paying customers to this day) into buying tickets to their shows. With no national following, it was easy for a wrestler to bounce from one territory to another whenever his act got stale. Very few people—even in management—made much money.

The McMahons spent the early part of their marriage promoting minor league hockey and various Evel Knievel-like events. Vince finally bought the business from his father in 1982.

Not content to run a regional enterprise, the McMahons believed they could use television to create a national brand. Promoters had put wrestling on television for decades, but always as an afterthought. The McMahons aggressively sought out television contracts in scores of local markets on UHF channels. They gave their shows away—and in some cases even paid stations to air them. The idea was to use television as billboards for live shows. It worked.

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