HARTFORD, Conn. — Soon after Linda McMahon suffered a three-count smackdown, she was back on her feet buying postelection TV ads to thank supporters and looking to get right back in the ring.
After spending nearly $50 million of her own fortune two years ago in a losing bid for U.S. Senate against Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO still has her eye on the prize. Like championship belts, one Senate seat from Connecticut is as good as the other.
This time it's the seat being vacated by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee and later self-declared independent. In 2010 it was seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd. McMahon is again casting herself as the outsider, and her opponent as a polished establishment pol.
But she's hardly the upstart underdog this time. She enjoyed a nearly 2-1 edge in delegates over former Rep. Christopher Shays at the state's Republican convention in May. The most recent statewide poll of registered Republicans showed her with 59 percent to 30 percent for Shays heading into the Aug. 14 primary.
Shays' supporters, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and GOP strategist Karl Rove, say McMahon can't win in November in a Democratic-leaning state like Connecticut. Rove said she had her chance in 2010 and said it's now time to support someone with experience.
"I appreciate her running last time, and she ran a spirited race," Rove said. "But 2010 was the year where we won a lot of races with a wind at our back. Now we need a guy who is steady and solid and can walk into the wind and has the courage to do so."
McMahon has ignored the claims that she can't win and says Shays' experience is the reason he should lose. She portrays the 10-term House member, who lost re-election in 2008, as part of the problem in Washington.
"We have to have a different viewpoint in Washington. We can't keep sending the same people back to Washington who created the mess and expect them to fix it," she said at a recent debate, accusing Shays of being "part of the issue of killing jobs and not creating jobs."
It is a tactic used successfully by other insurgent conservatives to upset the party's establishment candidate.
In Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, in the May GOP primary. That month, little-known state senator Deb Fischer in Nebraska upset the attorney general and state treasurer to win that GOP Senate primary.
"If you look at experience, it's not working. You know what? We need to change it up a bit" said Jeff Santopietro, a member of the Waterbury Republican Town Committee, explaining why he supported McMahon at the state convention. "If you got more people in Washington like Linda McMahon, with the business sense she has, I think you'll see a different view of Washington."
McMahon has made a concerted effort to win over the party faithful like Santopietro. Shortly after losing to Blumenthal by 12 percentage points, she was back on the Republican circuit, attending chicken dinners, appearing at local GOP fundraisers and working to heal wounds from the bruising defeat.
"She didn't miss a beat. She came right out and said, `Hey, I made some mistakes,'" said Raymond Dussault, chairman of the Norwich Republican Town Committee, a McMahon supporter who backed her GOP opponent in 2010, former Rep. Rob Simmons. McMahon since has been to Norwich three times for local GOP events. Dussault also likes how she shed her old campaign staff and is focused on grass-roots campaigning this time around.
Shays argues that Connecticut can't afford having two "junior senators" in Washington and that he could easily slip into the job and know what to do on Day One.
But a June 6 Quinnipiac Poll indicated that Connecticut voters aren't necessarily looking for a candidate with Capital Beltway experience. Fifty-four percent of registered voters said they preferred an "outsider" candidate, while 35 percent said they preferred someone with Washington experience.
The same poll, however, showed that more voters – 58 percent – think Shays has "the right kind of experience to be a U.S. senator from Connecticut," compared with McMahon, who got 46 percent. Posed as a negative, the results were somewhat different: 45 percent said McMahon doesn't have the right kind of experience, while only 18 percent said Shays does not.
Shays' campaign sees that as a weak spot in McMahon's armor. At the debate, Shays went after her record running WWE, bringing up everything from wrestler deaths to how her husband, Vince McMahon, demanded that a female wrestler remove her clothes and bark like a dog on stage during a now-infamous skit.
"Her work, her ownership of WWE, does not qualify her for a second to be the next United States senator," he said. "The question is, who has the experience, what are they going to do when they get elected and how are they going to get it done. And I know how to get it done because I've done it."
Victoria Rametta, a 20-year-old voter from Coventry who attended the debate, said she favors Shays' experience over McMahon's. She said she believes his resume will resonate more with general election voters. She said McMahon, if she becomes the nominee, will lose handily to U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, the endorsed Democratic candidate. Murphy faces a primary challenge from former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz.
"It seems as if, to be honest with you, Shays was the outsider in Washington and that's why he was able to get things done," Rametta said, referring to the former congressman's work with Democrats on many issues.