Linda McMahon and the Self-Funded Campaign

women-candidates-wide
Will money get them in? From left: Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon. Getty Images (2); AP (right)

It’s not clear how well crotch kicks will play in a Senate race, but women as action heroes are hot at the box office, judging by the success of Angelina Jolie’s contortions in Salt. And the money Linda McMahon socked away as the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment was apparently enough that the $25 million she spent in the Republican primary in Connecticut is just chump change. She’s got plenty more where that came from, and so far she’s deflecting criticism about her wealth and the wrestling empire she once led.

In her first television interviews after she handily dispatched her two challengers, she seemed so demure with her short blonde hair, tidy and pixie-styled, and what looked like a string of pearls that viewers might have wondered whether the demon attacker in the ring was an imposter. But it’s McMahon at a WWE event years ago, and one of her Republican opponents aired the video clip repeatedly in his ads. She won anyway. Maybe people identify with her rage, just as they do with the Jet Blue flight attendant, and think Washington could use a good kick where it hurts.

She’s used her money to get attention, and she’s sold herself well so far, turning what was supposed to be a safe Democratic seat in blue Connecticut into a contest. Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general, says she’s turning the race into an auction by vowing to spend up to $50 million of her money. Asked to respond to the charge, McMahon says it’s money she earned, and that she’s investing in herself as a public servant.

Republican women, for a variety of reasons, have blazed a path to higher levels in the corporate world. And now they’re doing what their male counterparts have done forever: funding their own campaigns. WWE’s McMahon joins eBay’s Meg Whitman and Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina in a trio of races that are transformative in terms of women’s maturation in the political world, regardless of who wins.

These aren’t moms in tennis shoes, or earnest reformers who got their starts on the school board or with the League of Women Voters, or, on the right, women who cut their teeth in the right-to-life movement. They’re playing from the men’s tee, elbows out and with their own money. Whitman is outspending her opponent in the California gubernatorial race, Democrat Jerry Brown, 86 to 1. One report said she spent more in one day than he has during the entire campaign. She has already dropped $100 million and is on track to become the biggest spender in a state with a long record of affluent people seeking office on the coattails of their money. According to a survey done earlier this year by The San Diego Union-Tribune, only one of 18 self-funded notables running since 1964 got elected, and that was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spent “only” $6 million of his money, a pittance compared with Whitman.

We don’t know yet how Whitman will fare, but the millions she has spent since winning the June Republican primary have not moved her out of a dead heat with Brown in the polls. “People have tended to trust self-financed candidates, thinking they’re not owned by anybody else but themselves, but I’m not at all certain that will hold in this economic environment, with Wall Street’s problems and high unemployment,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “She’s pledged to spend at least $150 million, and people are asking, ‘Why doesn’t she just invest in the state?’ ”

Whitman is buying up expensive airtime as Brown, in his role as the state’s attorney general, is getting free media coverage by cracking down on a suburb of Los Angeles, Bell, where the city manager was paying himself $800,000. The tangle of corruption is keeping Brown in the news as he subpoenas financial records. Whitman complains that he is exploiting the scandal, but there’s not much she can do about that. It’s his day job.

The novelty of having serious female candidates contending in both the senate and governor’s races has not rallied the sisterhood the way it did a generation ago. Californians may not be ready for another novice (Schwarzenegger leaves office with very low approval ratings), and Whitman’s money may not be enough to calm voter concerns. There are rumblings that Fiorina isn’t spending enough of her money, and she’s also pro-life in a very blue, pro-choice state. Fiorina's opponent, Democrat Barbara Boxer, who's contending for a third Senate term, should never be underestimated; she is a ferocious campaigner. And Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Fiorina will be used by Boxer—and with independents, that’s far more negative than positive.

Self-financed corporate women candidates represent another crack in the glass ceiling, but one that’s not entirely celebratory. When running for office becomes pay-to-play, that excludes more women than it lets in. Money has gotten these women in the game, but money doesn’t always win, not in wrestling, not in life, and certainly not in politics.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.