NORTH HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — At Linda McMahon's campaign headquarters, employees are working the phones to recruit people to knock on doors, put up campaign lawn signs and host get-togethers with the former wrestling executive. By Election Day, the campaign says it will have a volunteer army in the thousands ready to get out the vote.
The focus on building a strong grass-roots network contrasts with the Republican's first bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010, when she was known best for spending $50 million of her own money and reaching out to voters through stacks of political mailers and endless TV commercials — an onslaught that turned some people off and prompted critics to accuse her of trying to buy the Senate seat.
The shift reflects an emphasis on a more personal approach. While McMahon still plans to run ads, she is also reaching out to people not typically involved in politics. She's touring businesses and holding Conversations with Linda in women's living rooms across the state. McMahon or staff members personally follow up with emails and calls to voters.
"Like anything in life, we've all learned lessons. I know Linda learned lessons from the last campaign. Some things will be the same. Some things will be different," Corry Bliss, McMahon's campaign manager, told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
But it remains to be seen whether McMahon's new approach will prove successful. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed her leading her closest rival, former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, the former congressman has gained on McMahon.
In her austere campaign headquarters in North Haven, a suite of old offices with mostly secondhand furniture, employees work the phones to seek out volunteers and gauge support for the upcoming Republican state convention and primary. Gone are the freshly painted white walls and leather couch that graced McMahon's 2010 campaign offices in upscale, downtown West Hartford.
McMahon's new team — Bliss said none of the paid staff worked for McMahon in 2010 — has been gathering information since last fall on everyone from potential delegates to the May 18 convention, to volunteers willing to knock on doors in targeted neighborhoods. They're putting that data into an elaborate spreadsheet, a tool the campaign claims will ultimately give McMahon the edge in her second run. They also make the point that the data can be shared with other Republican candidates, helping them to target supporters.
So far, the campaign says it already has an active volunteer base of more than 2,000 people and has plans in place to knock on 500,000 doors and make 1 million phone calls before Election Day.
"Our goal is to have a grass-roots organization like it's never been seen before in Connecticut," Bliss said. "No television ad or piece of mail is effective as having a good experience with someone at your doorstep, talking about a candidate, handing you a brochure."
McMahon lost the 2010 race to then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal by double digits.
Amanda Bergin, communications director for Shays, said she has heard that McMahon's campaign has been pitching its organizational efforts to potential GOP voters as a reason to support McMahon and is skeptical that much has changed from two years ago.
"No political campaign reveals their actual strategy with honorable intentions," Bergin said. "She claimed she had a big grass-roots organization last time. The strategy clearly didn't work for her in 2010 since she lost by 12 points in one of the best Republican years, and she spent $50 million to lose by those 12 points."
Bergin points out how McMahon also had an initiative to reach out to women in the last race and Blumenthal ultimately received three of every five votes from women. A March 22 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 40 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of McMahon, while 44 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Among women, the numbers are worse for McMahon, with 36 percent having a favorable opinion, 44 percent unfavorable.
"She's trying to repackage a product that voters have already said they don't want," Bergin said.
That same poll showed that McMahon led Shays among primary voters by 9 percentage points, less than her lead of 15 percentage points in September. In a poll of a possible general election matchup, however, Shays nearly tied the Democratic frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy. The same poll showed Murphy would defeat McMahon, prompting Shays to sell himself to Republicans as the candidate with the best chance to win in a general election.
"The claim that she's building an organization that other Republicans can use is one that will not ring true," Bergin said. "She's already proven that she hurts the Republican ticket and this is just her way of trying to convince Republicans otherwise."
Bliss contends that the early organizational work being done by the McMahon campaign will bear fruit. He predicted by the fall, the campaign will have spoken to several hundred thousand
people. They'll know everything from what issues voters care about to who is willing to put a campaign sign on their lawn.
"There's lots of incredible information that we gain by doing this and talking with these people," he said. "I think it can make a big, big, big difference."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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