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Why Doesn’t Wrestling Matter In Linda McMahon's Senate Race?

Two years ago, you probably saw the video clip of Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon kicking her husband, Vince, in the groin. McMahon touted her business experience as the World Wrestling Entertainment CEO as her main qualification for office, but her resume wound up a profound liability. In addition to the infamous low blow—retribution, in the fantasy WWE storyline, for Vince’s affair—Linda’s candidacy was clouded by a Congressional investigation into steroid use in professional wrestling, spurred by wrestler Chris Benoit’s suicide and murder of his wife and son. During the campaign, we learned that WWE wrestlers had died of possible wrestling-related health problems—and McMahon’s opponent, attorney general Dick Blumenthal, criticized her for denying WWE wrestlers health insurance.

Less than a month before the election, the director of Quinnipiac University Poll told the Boston Globe, “I think the wrestling stuff has hurt. ... People are not wild about her.” McMahon lost by 12 points.

This year, McMahon is running a very different Senate campaign. Gone are the ads celebrating McMahon’s unorthodox career (some of which, remarkably, included wrestling footage). In their place are TV spots recasting her as a kindly grandmother. One features McMahon saying in her southern drawl: “As a grandmother, I worry that all of our grandchildrenwill have a worse quality of life than we did.” And McMahon isn’t afraid to spend to spread her message: Since the beginning of her last race, McMahon has spent roughly $62 million dollars of her own money on her two Senate campaigns.

McMahon’s new strategy and increased name recognition is paying off in the polls, especially with women: She lost the female vote by double digits in 2010, but recent polling shows her only 6 points behind opponent, Democratic Congressman Chris Murphy. Overall, the most recent polling puts her just 5 points behind Murphy in the solidly blue state. As one Connecticut Democratic strategist, Matt Hennessy, put it glumly: “This race is much closer than it needs to be.”

The narrowing gap with female voters is surprising in an election year when so-called women’s issues—not just contraception and abortion, but the very definition of “rape”—are hot-button topics. McMahon has not been immune to gaffes in that regard—in the third debate on Monday night, McMahon tried to walk back a statement she made to the Hartford Courant editorial board that Catholic-run hospitals should be able to deny emergency contraception to rape victims if it was against their beliefs. (In the debate, she tried to fudge the statement by saying she’d been referring specifically to the Catholic Church, and she reiterated her support for rape victims’ use of the morning after pill.)

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But McMahon should be a particularly ripe target in this political climate, given her business’ history of glorifying violence against women. The 2003 documentary, Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bulling, and Battering, revealed some of WWE’s most sexually violent content. In one clip, Vince McMahon, who is also the chairman of WWE, orders an anguished wrestler named Trish to get down on her knees as he unzips his pants. In another scene, Trish chokes back tears when McMahon makes her crawl around the ring on all fours and bark like a dog. More footage shows an announcer threatening to fire two reluctant women if they won’t take off their clothes and wrestler Triple H growing read with anger as he yells at his wife Stephanie, the McMahons’ daughter. 

Murphy has been timid about the WWE’s blatant misogyny, even as he seeks to tie McMahon to the “War on Women.” A recent Murphy campaign ad draws parallels between McMahon’s career “demean[ing] women to make millions in her business” and her support for legislation that would exempt employers from having to provide contraception coverage to employees. But the ad does not actually show any WWE content—even though the footage would most likely be usable under fair use.

A Murphy campaign spokesman, Eli Zupnick, wrote in an email, “We believe it is very important for voters to understand what [McMahon’s] work at the WWE says about her values and priorities, and there are many ways to get that message across.” Indeed, after shying away from it in previous debates, Murphy stepped up his attacks on pro wrestling in the third debate on Monday, criticizing McMahon for creating jobs that led to the deaths of wrestlers.

The Connecticut Democratic Party, which doesn’t run television ads, has tried to take up the attack, posting YouTube videos of some of the most shocking WWE footage (for example: a wrestler simulating sex with a corpse). But within hours, WWE got YouTube to scrub the videos, citing copyright infringement. The company, which changed its rating from TV-14 to PG in 2008, announced just last month that they would be removing “dated and edgier” footage from the Internet because it no longer reflected their softer content and posed a risk to the company’s reputation.

But even if Democrats could do more to highlight the sordid nature of McMahon’s success, it still might be less interesting to voters than it was in 2010, because they’ve simply gotten used to it. “It has less resonance now than it did in 2010,” says Ron Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, “[voters] have factored that in and put it away.” After all, every exposure to WWE—to fans, and perhaps to Connecticut voters—makes pro-wrestling seem a little more normal.