Ex-WWE exec taps Greenwich donors for Senate bid

AP News

3/5/2012 1:01:53 PM - AP News

Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon is counting heavily on supporters from affluent Greenwich in her Senate bid, collecting more than 40 percent of itemized campaign contributions from donors with ties to her adopted Connecticut hometown.

McMahon, a Republican who lost the 2010 Senate race to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, vowed to make fundraising a bigger part of this year's campaign after taking criticism from both parties for spending $50 million of her own money on the failed bid. In the final three months of last year, she raised more than $300,000, nearly triple the amount she collected in her entire first run.

Contributors with Greenwich ties provided McMahon with more than $116,000, or nearly 43 percent of her total of nearly $273,000 in itemized contributions of more than $200, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

McMahon is far from alone in tapping donors from Greenwich, which is about 32 miles from New York City and ranks among the wealthiest towns in America with a median household income of about $97,000. Her main rival for the Republican nomination, former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, raised $96,000 from Greenwich, or 26 percent of his total of $370,000.

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat seeking the Senate seat, has led all candidates by raising $2.7 million in itemized contributions. He raised $223,000, or about 8 percent, from contributors with Greenwich ties.

McMahon, a North Carolina native, moved to Greenwich in the 1980s and built a wrestling empire with her husband, Vince McMahon, serving as CEO of WWE, formerly known as World Wrestling Entertainment, until stepping down in 2009. As a political candidate, she has tapped wealthy supporters well beyond Greenwich.

McMahon has received $5,000 from real estate mogul Donald Trump, $5,000 from retired General Electric Chairman Jack Welch and his wife, $7,500 from the chairman of Morgan Stanley, $6,000 from the president of a luxury car dealer in Greenwich and $1,000 from a high-end clothing store executive in Westport. She received $96,450 from contributors who described themselves as corporate presidents, CEOs, vice presidents, executives, chairmen or business owners. That's 35 percent of her total.

Shays received $59,000 from corporate executives and owners. That's 16 percent of his total.

While most candidates seek larger contributions from the wealthy, affluent candidates have an advantage, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, which advocates public financing of campaigns.

"Wealthy people tend to hang out with other wealthy people," Holman said. "It's just the wealthy candidates have an inside track on that because of their networks. A non-wealthy candidate very frequently does not actually hang out at the expensive country club and make the networks with wealthy contributors."

McMahon raised $6,750 from six unemployed contributors and $225 from a carpenter. She also raised $47,000 in smaller donations of less than $200.

McMahon's campaign said she raised more than $300,000 from 1,085 donors in the final three months of last year and that more than 80 percent of the contributions came from Connecticut residents.

"These 1,085 new shareholders join our growing grassroots organization of Team Linda members who have contributed their time, energy and effort to spreading our positive message of getting Connecticut back to work," the campaign said in a statement that noted some contributions were as small as $10.

Richard Hasen, an expert on money in politics at the University of California at Irvine School of Law, said candidates often count on affluent donors early on to show they are serious contenders. But he said early reliance on the wealthy also poses concerns.

"If you believe in leveling the playing field, there's something troubling about the fact that what makes a candidate be taken seriously is their ability to raise money from the wealthy," Hasen said. "That can both skew the kinds of positions the candidates might take towards the wealthy and it also gives more power to the views of those with wealth who can afford to write those checks than to others."

McMahon continues to rely heavily on her own money, loaning her campaign $780,000. She also lists contributing $642,000 of her own money in cash and campaign expenses.

She raised only $5,500 from three WWE employees. But she netted more than $20,000 from 16 employees of Morgan Stanley, including $7,500 from John Mack, who retired at the end of the year as chairman of the investment bank.

McMahon raised $187,550 from within Connecticut, or 69 percent of her total itemized contributions. Shays raised about $300,000 within Connecticut, or 81 percent of his total.