As the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, Linda McMahon knows drama. But even she didn’t anticipate the furor over her latest bid to win a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, which she lost to Democrat Chris Murphy. It was audacious, coming just two years after losing to another Democrat in a state where only one-fifth of voters are registered Republicans. It was expensive, with McMahon personally spending $97 million on the two campaigns. And it was controversial, as McMahon ran ads that ripped her opponent while distancing herself from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. She spoke with Senior Editor Diane Brady on Nov. 8. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
When did you realize you’d lost the race?
I was sitting by myself, actually. I had just taken a moment to go upstairs and get my thoughts together on what I was still hoping would be a victory speech. I was just sitting there, going over my speech—clearly you have a concession speech as well, but you’re hoping that’s not the one you use. I wasn’t paying that much attention to the TV. This was about 40 minutes after the polls closed. Then I looked up and saw a check mark next to Chris Murphy’s name on ABC. I barely caught it out of the corner of my eye. I just thought, “Wow.” I was stunned for a moment. I sat there for a few minutes on my own, reflecting on what the race had been. I thought about the thousands of people who not only had touched me but whom I had touched as well. All the notes, “Thank you for running. Thank you for showing me that it’s worth putting everything on the line,” and things like that.
You must have gone into this knowing it would be tough to win.
It always is a battle for a Republican in Connecticut, even one who’s a moderate like I am, and one who’s an independent thinker. We had a president who had strong coattails. I had a message that did resonate with a good number of people in the state, but the other guy got more votes.
Having lost before, why do it again?
What really got me in the race the first time was looking at where our economy was. There didn’t seem to be businesspeople focusing on that. After I lost, I just kept watching. I had four little grandchildren when I first decided to run in 2009. By the end of the year, I had six. It just wasn’t fair for these kids to be shouldering such debt and to then grow up in an economy that didn’t offer the same opportunity that their grandfather and I had. I don’t want to minimize the job of a senator. It’s not just about the economy, but that was the biggest gap we had. When Senator [Joe] Lieberman announced he was retiring, I thought it was time to reach out again. I knew the opportunity would probably never come back again for me.
Did the scrutiny you got at WWE make it easier to handle it on the campaign trail?
Being under the political spotlight is far different than anything I’d experienced before. Every word is a critical word. Sometimes you really aren’t allowed to get your full thought out. A lot of it is about having a 30-second sound bite.
What had you learned from the first race?
I felt I really needed to have my thoughts and plan written down so people could see it. Because of the associations with WWE, I wasn’t resonating with women so that became a priority, so we started something called “Conversations with Linda.”
A lot has been made of $97 million you’ve spent in these races. How do you think that’s been portrayed?
The way it’s framed is that I’m trying to buy the election for my own personal gain. What would be my personal gain? I’m not looking for a new career. I’ve had a wonderful career. I was hoping to bring a different voice and perspective and use my skills that have been honed as a CEO in bringing people together. I’ve had a little bit of fame and fortune. I’ve been in the public eye. I wasn’t looking for a hobby. If I were looking for a hobby, it wouldn’t be the United States Senate. That’s one of the toughest jobs I’d probably ever do. I just felt there wasn’t enough compromise going on: People were too far to the left, too far to the right, with no one trying to build a compromise. I understand the attention. Look, it’s an incredible amount of money to spend on a campaign.
Was it money well spent?
I feel really good about what I’ve accomplished. So many people have said, “You’ve made me think that I can do something. You’ve made me look at things a new way.” I think people were more thoroughly convinced the second time around that I was passionate about these issues. I found that I had a special following among 12- to 14-year-old girls. I was incredibly flattered. When I asked a mother about it, she said, “You have become a role model for these girls.”
There’s been a lot of comment about the negative ads on both sides.
We did what I consider to be contrast ads, to show what his voting record was. We did bring out something about him that he’d gotten political favors on a special loan. They were things I thought the voters should know. We never put up evil-looking pictures of him or play dark and dreary music. They actually photoshopped me a couple of times, making my jaw longer, and making me look like a really evil person.
Does it matter having women in Washington?
I really do think it matters. Susan Collins (Republican senator from Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) came down and campaigned with me. Susan told me that all the women in the Senate—there were only 17 at the time—would get together every six weeks. They’d have a dinner or just meet and talk. They’d agree to disagree on some things, try to find common ground on others. I think women are not as hung up on the testosterone thing. They’re more collaborative. They multitask better and I think they’re more results-oriented. They just want to cut to the chase and get it done. Susan and Lisa were saying that they felt they could do better with more women in the Senate.
Is it hard for Republican women to focus on issues like jobs when others in the party are off talking about “legitimate rape” and access to birth control?
There was clearly a political agenda to take the conversation in that direction because the emphasis on jobs and the economy was not going well. Those are the issues that matter most to people right now.
Are you glad you ran?
[My husband] Vince told me a story the day after the election. Some guy from WWE had no power [from the storm] so he’d taken his wife and daughter to the Hilton on Tuesday night. They walked into the hotel as I was getting ready to give my concession speech, so they stayed to watch it. His daughter, I think she was 9, stood there as I was giving my speech. This little girl came up when I was in the receiving line and apparently there was some question about the campaign. I touched my heart and touched her heart and said, “Just remember to do things from your heart,” and then I pointed to my head to say, “as well as your head.” He told Vince that was something she would never forget. I don’t know her face. I don’t know him. But it means a lot to know I’ve left an impact on people like that little girl. Everyone needs to feel they can make a difference.
What’s next for you?
One thing I’ll continue to do is our philanthropic work. I’m not really focused right now on what happens next. I don’t really anticipate running for public office again. I think I’ve given that a really good, strong shot. At this moment, it’s not a consideration. Things can always change but it’s not something I anticipate right now.