Senators Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 (D-CT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) were not “ready to rumble” with Linda McMahon again. In her two runs for Connecticut’s Senate seats McMahon, a Republican and former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO, lost each time by over ten percentage points — first to Blumenthal in 2010, then to Murphy in 2012. This year, it seemed like McMahon finally had the upper hand.
After one hundred million dollars of campaign spending by McMahon, several ads questioning Blumenthal’s Vietnam service record, and a barrage of accusations that Murphy did not attend critical hearings and votes on the financial crisis, the three shuffled into a room of reporters, supporters, and donors — as a team. Their aim was to ensure McMahon’s confirmation as the next Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Brutal ads about unfair tax breaks, mistreatment of employees, drug scandals, and layoffs during her time at the WWE haunted McMahon during her two failed campaigns. But she sat comfortably beside the two Democrats who defeated her as they praised her business experience, moderate views, and commitment to women and veteran-owned businesses. During fierce Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, why did Republican Linda McMahon receive glowing endorsements from her two former opponents?
Since 2012, McMahon has dedicated much of her time to philanthropic work. She launched a “Women Can Have It All” speaker series at Sacred Heart University in 2014, focusing on the experiences of women in the workplace. In 2016, McMahon co-founded Women Leadership Live, a startup that promotes leadership opportunities for women.
Several state Democratic officials mentioned in interviews with The Politic that McMahon has not played a visible role in Connecticut politics since her loss to Murphy in 2012. But Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that she has donated regularly to the Leadership Connecticut Political Action Committee (PAC) and the Connecticut Republican Party. A veteran campaigner familiar with Republican politics in Connecticut told The Politic that McMahon has also continued to informally advise Republican candidates after her two campaigns.
McMahon’s SBA nomination received official endorsements from Senators Blumenthal and Murphy. Representatives of the all-Democratic Connecticut congressional delegation also expressed support for McMahon’s nomination.
“Growing our economy and promoting job creation are top priorities for the folks I represent in Congress. I’m looking forward to working with Administrator McMahon to support Connecticut’s small businesses and achieve our shared goals for the people of this wonderful state, whom we are both proud to serve,” said Representative Elizabeth Esty (CT-5) in an email to The Politic.
Other comments from Connecticut lawmakers were similarly hopeful about collaboration, but lacking in details. Representative Jim Himes’ (CT-4) comment to The Politic compared McMahon to other Cabinet nominees.
“Linda McMahon is one of the few Trump selections for his Cabinet that actually has relevant experience in the field for which she was nominated,” he said.
This reference to relevant experience appeared in interviews across party lines. In an interview with The Politic, J. R. Romano, Chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, explained that McMahon’s successful tenure at the WWE in Connecticut’s stifling small business environment will serve as important experience during her time at the SBA.
“She’s certainly qualified. She built a small business into an empire. The credentials are there,” Romano said.
After lauding McMahon’s commitment to the Connecticut Republican Party after her 2012 Senate campaign, Romano added, “McMahon witnessed first hand what not to do in Connecticut.”
Governor Dannel Malloy received criticism after General Electric announced it was closing its headquarters in Connecticut, citing the state’s high tax rates. The CNBC “America’s Top States for Business” scorecard ranked Connecticut as the 43rd best state for business in 2016. Another recent survey by Thumbtack ranked Connecticut as the worst state for small business in America.
Representative John Larson (CT-1) supported McMahon immediately after her nomination. At the time of publication, only Representatives Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) and Joe Courtney (CT-2) had yet to comment. A source close to a Connecticut Representative explained to The Politic that Democratic officeholders are unlikely to criticize McMahon before she implements new policy. However, the source confirmed that these positive statements may not continue throughout her term.
According to Gary Rose, the department chair of Government, Politics, and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University, there is a strategy behind the Connecticut delegation’s praise.
“I’m sure that Murphy and Blumenthal know that it is relevant to their own political fortune to have businesses getting loans from the SBA here in Connecticut,” Rose told The Politic. “I think once they realized [McMahon] was probably going to be confirmed, they got on board with that because she can certainly help businesses here in Connecticut. If they can take some credit for that, then that’s a win-win for everybody.”
In his introduction at McMahon’s confirmation hearing, Senator Blumenthal remarked on his and McMahon’s shared loyalty to Connecticut.
“I hope [McMahon] will continue to have Connecticut at the top of her mind as she assumes this new role,” he said.
In response, Senator James Risch (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, joked that he hoped McMahon would keep Idaho at the top of her mind. According to two journalists familiar with McMahon’s political career and the role of past SBA directors, this remark is indicative of a larger trend of support for SBA Administrators from their home states’ delegations. One journalist remarked that confirming a Republican Administrator from Connecticut would be more helpful to the state than confirming a Democrat from any other state.
McMahon has faced scrutiny for her political donations. Before her nomination to head the SBA, McMahon donated nearly 7.5 million dollars to PACs supporting Donald Trump’s presidential bid, according to FEC records. McMahon’s office declined to comment when contacted about the alleged relationship between her PAC donations and the nomination following her confirmation. Senators present at McMahon’s confirmation hearing did not mention her donation history.
McMahon is an annual donor to the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee. Between 2013 and 2016, McMahon donated to the campaigns of 25 Republican and one Democratic senator who voted to confirm her on February 14. (Figure 1)
Six years after defeating McMahon, Blumenthal ran for reelection in 2016 against Republican candidate Dan Carter. McMahon and her husband donated $2,700 each to Carter’s principal campaign committee, but neither acted as a high profile surrogate for Carter nor disparaged Blumenthal publicly. Carter later lost the election to Blumenthal by nearly 30 points.
In 2012, former President Barack Obama elevated the SBA to a Cabinet-level agency. The SBA Administrator also held a Cabinet position in the Bill Clinton LAW ’73 administration, but former President George W. Bush ’68 chose not to include the SBA Administrator in his Cabinet. Since the SBA’s formation in 1953, confirmation hearings and votes have remained largely uncontroversial and bipartisan.
Both Karen Mills, a former private equity firm president and chair of Maine’s Council on Competitiveness and the Economy, and Maria Contreras-Sweet, a former bank executive and Secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, served as SBA Administrators under President Obama. The Senate confirmed Mills unanimously in April 2009 and confirmed Contreras-Sweet by a simple voice vote in March 2014.
Senators’ increased attendance at the confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees reflects pressure from the media and constituents to get their elected officials’ opinions of President Trump’s nominees and their policies on record. Contreras-Sweet’s confirmation hearing featured only seven out of 18 senators on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee at the time. Mills’ hearing included six out of 19 senators. In a clear departure from that pattern, 18 of 19 senators participated in questioning McMahon.
Former President Obama nominated Karen Mills to head the SBA in 2009. Two Republican senators from Mills’ state of residence, Maine, introduced her, a Democrat nominee for a Democratic administration. Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) cited Mills’ ties to Maine and her experience with the local business community as evidence of Mills’ readiness. The choice to be vocally bipartisan in the name of state allegiance mirrors the actions of Senators Blumenthal and Murphy.
According to FEC records, Mills donated over $30,000 to the Obama Victory Fund and Obama for America in 2008, before her appointment. She also donated to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’s campaign that same year. Mills and her husband donated equal amounts to the campaigns of Senator Collins and her opponent, Thomas Allen, in Maine’s 2008 Senate election. Before that election, however, the Mills contributed significantly to Allen’s congressional campaigns. While they did donate to Senator Collins’ opponent, they have neither run for public office themselves nor have they publicly disparaged Senator Collins.
In contrast, Contreras-Sweet has contributed only $3,500 to date, according to the FEC. Contreras-Sweet’s hearing began with statements of support from the two Democratic senators from her home state of California, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Contreras-Sweet had not run for public office before her nomination.
On Tuesday, February 14, the Senate confirmed Linda McMahon to become the Administrator of the Small Business Administration by a 81-19 vote. Democratic senators accounted for all 19 votes against McMahon’s confirmation.
Sean Cleary, a former Congressional District Field Director for McMahon’s 2012 Senate campaign and the current political director of Republican Peter Lumaj’s 2018 Statewide Exploratory Committee, reflected on McMahon’s confirmation vote in an interview with The Politic.
“Republicans voiced bipartisan support for former President Obama’s SBA picks. The fact that 19 Democrats opposed Linda McMahon, who has done more business roundtables and talked to more small business owners than anyone in the Northeast in the last ten years, says a lot,” said Cleary. “It seems like those Democrats [who voted against McMahon] would rather play politics than help jumpstart the economy.”
While Leigh Appleby, Communications Director for the Connecticut Democratic Party, expressed concern that the majority of President Trump’s appointments are his wealthy personal friends, she told The Politic, “Senators Blumenthal and Murphy deserve a lot of credit for putting politics aside and supporting Linda McMahon’s nomination.”
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) echoed Appleby’s concerns about President Trump appointments. In his statement to The Politic, Senator Brown accused McMahon and the WWE of shortchanging and mistreating workers. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) expressed similar concern in a public statement, writing that the SBA “does not need a leader who will advance profits at workers’ expense.”
But Rose believes that hyper-partisanship is to blame for the lack of full support for McMahon from Democrats.
“There are some Democrats in Washington, D.C. right now, just as there were some Republicans during Obama’s administration, who will oppose virtually every decision of Donald Trump,” he said. “And so it doesn’t surprise me at all that even somebody like Linda McMahon would be opposed by some Democrats, simply because she is Trump’s nominee. It probably has nothing to do with her at all. But it has everything to do with their animus towards Donald Trump.”
McMahon’s confirmation shows both the limits of bipartisanship in today’s political climate and the way in which representatives of one state can work together across party lines. While Democratic support for McMahon will most likely fade, Connecticut’s Senators are putting their state before their party.