The headline on my hometown of New Haven’s Web site reads “Blumenthal Beats McMahon; Women Doomed Her.”(We are unafraid of semi-colons.) In a Monday poll, Republican Linda McMahon was four points ahead among men but 25 points down among women. That’s not a gender gap—it’s a chasm. Women were clearly not moved purely by the desire to give Connecticut its first female senator.
Can we draw any broader lessons from McMahon’s defeat? Unique is an overused word, but what else to call her? At least, it’s hard to imagine another wrestling executive diva-grandmother with a yacht named Sexy Bitch * popping up in my state of hollowed-out minor cities and golf-course-laden major suburbs. For the nomination, McMahon muscled out the moderate insider, former Congressman Rob Simmons, at the summer Republican convention. She had the moxie and the money. She promised to spend $50 million, and she succeeded—I have the barrage of campaign mail to prove it.
McMahon ran on her CEO prowess as a founder, with her husband, of World Wrestling Entertainment. But the oddities of this particular corporation trailed her. She had to answer questions about dead wrestlers and steroids, a WWE pay-per-view boob-fest, and her husband’s demand that a female wrestler bark like a dog. She tried a bunch of different jabs and feints, but none of them transformed her weird and ultimately weak candidacy. For her concession speech, McMahon played small town girl. She told us she’d had a fabulous year meeting the good folk of Connecticut, and brought out her whole family, calling out their names like a game-show host. I wonder how her kids feel about all those millions they won’t inherit.
If there’s a gender lesson in Connecticut, it’s that odd-duck female candidates make women voters as nervous as wacky men do. Christine O’Donnell in Delaware is Exhibit B for this point. She got a ton of attention, but she never got the majority of voters in her state to take her seriously. O’Donnell surely has a future ahead of her as conservative talk-show girl, just as she had a past. But she proved that it doesn’t play well everywhere to run as Sarah Palin’s younger sister.
Kelly Ayotte looks like a far sturdier model. She had Palin’s endorsement, and ads in which she proclaimed herself “tough,” shot a gun, rode a snowmobile, and showed off her Iraq vet husband. But more than theatrics, Ayotte had a law-enforcement record as New Hampshire’s attorney general. She didn’t get O’Donnell’s national press, but she’s the East Coast Republican woman to watch.
I’m going to post this now, with the fate of many of the women candidates for Senate and governor * we’ve been watching—Sharron Angle, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Alex Sink—undecided. Nikki Haley will be South Carolina’s next governor: Hanna, I’ll leave her to you. A few questions for you both:
If this is the year in which the ways to run for major office as a woman multiplied, do we call it a victory for the future of women in politics no matter what verdict the voters returned? Or, as Jennifer Lawless cautions, should we soberly stress that women are running in fewer than one third of the 435 House races and 14 Senate contests (plus Lisa Murkowski in Alaska)? Should we worry that pretty-face utter long-shots like O’Donnell and Democrat Krystal Ball sucked up far more than their share of air time? Is the most important election for women the Senate race in Alaska, because it will determine whether Sarah Palin can kill off a woman she hates (Lisa Murkowski) for a man she helped make (Joe Miller)?
Correction, Nov. 3, 2010: This article originally said that McMahon’s yacht was named Sexy Beast. In fact, it is named Sexy Bitch. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Nov. 3, 2010: The original sentence left out “and governor.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Photograph by Abigail Pheiffer-Pool/Getty Images.