HARTFORD, Conn. | Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was elected to the Senate on Tuesday in a bruising cage-fight of a campaign against pro wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, extending the Democrats' hold on the seat.
Blumenthal, one of Connecticut's best-known politicians, withstood an advertising onslaught funded by tens of millions of dollars from McMahon's own pocket and survived a political scare last spring when it was reported that he falsely claimed or implied more than once that he served in Vietnam.
"I have something money can't buy: I have you," Blumenthal told a cheering crowd of supporters who filled a downtown hotel ballroom. "And Connecticut today had an election, not an auction."
With more than two-thirds of precincts reporting, Blumenthal had 53 percent to 45 percent for McMahon, a Republican political novice who touted her business experience in the world of wrestling.
Blumenthal, 64, will fill the seat held by Democrat Chris Dodd since 1981. Dodd decided not to seek a sixth term back in January amid lackluster poll numbers.
McMahon, a political unknown a year ago, called her loss a victory.
"The people of Connecticut have selected who their senator is going to be tonight, but stay tuned," she told reporters. McMahon said she did not know if she'd run for Senate in 2012, when Joe Lieberman is up for re-election, but she did rule out returning to WWE.
"You can't step out of WWE and expect to come back in, because it moves forward and it's moving forward at a great pace," she said. "I wouldn't try to step back in there."
Blumenthal, attorney general for two decades, won despite a furor that erupted when The New York Times reported that he repeatedly told audiences he served in Vietnam, when he actually remained stateside with the Marine Reserve during the war. He told voters he "misspoke" and never intended to mislead anyone.
The McMahon camp boasted that it was responsible for the story and called Blumenthal a liar, but the controversy all but died down. According to the preliminary exit poll results, about three of every five voters said they considered him trustworthy — even some who voted for McMahon.
For her part, McMahon was dogged by questions about her former role as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, a company she and her husband, Vince McMahon, transformed into a global behemoth that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Blumenthal and other Democrats ran TV ads accusing McMahon of being a bad CEO who didn't care about the welfare of her employees. Her critics also made an issue of steroid abuse in pro wrestling and the WWE's old raunchy shows.
McMahon performed on the WWE several times, taking part in some of the elaborately scripted back stories that play out like violent soap operas. She was surely the only candidate in the nation who had to answer questions like: Did you really kick that guy in the you-know-what?
Almost six of every 10 voters surveyed at the polls Tuesday said they thought Blumenthal attacked McMahon unfairly; about seven of every 10 thought McMahon unfairly attacked Blumenthal.
Jessica Frease, 28, a teacher from Norwich, was turned off by both major-party candidates and instead voted for independent Warren Mosler.
"To be honest, Linda McMahon is ridiculous and offensive," she said. "And I wasn't really impressed with Blumenthal."
McMahon, 62, is believed to have spent at least $50 million of her own money on her campaign.
She portrayed herself as a different kind of a candidate — a business executive, not a career politician, and someone who knows how to create jobs and shake things up in Washington.
After she was criticized by some as too aggressive, she ran TV ads and sent out mailers accentuating her feminine side, pointing out that she is a mother and grandmother.
Both she and Blumenthal sparred over what to do about the Bush-era tax cuts. While Blumenthal supported extending the cuts for those earning $250,000 or less, McMahon contended that all the tax cuts were necessary, including those for higher-income earners. She argued those would help small businesses hire more workers.
They also clashed over the Wall Street bailout — he opposed it, she supported it with certain conditions.