WATERBURY, CONN., Jan. 10, 2010 -- Linda McMahon has thrown herself in the political ring as a potential Republican candidate to be a senator for Connecticut -- with $50 million of her own money, she told ABC News.
"I've said, I would, you know, I'd be willing to spend ... if it takes $50 million. Here's why: because I am a political unknown in the state," she said.
Known as the longtime and former CEO of phenomenally successful and hugely profitable World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., McMahon discusses with ABC News the ups and downs of launching a fledgling career in Washington and why she's up for the challenge.
Kate Snow: Why are you running for the U.S. Senate?
Linda McMahon: Well, I've had a really good career. And, it's been an exciting career. But, I am very concerned of where our government is taking our country at this particular point. A mounting debt, free-wheeling spending that we have in Washington, and I've just been watching it, and looking at it, and understanding that there's potential that the American dream that I was able to live will not be there for other generations, if we continue down the paths where we are. So, I'm running, just because I felt, well, I think I'd like to make a difference. I have business experience. None of the other candidates that are running bring the same kind of experience to the table. I've gone from bankruptcy at the beginning of my career, of losing my home, losing cars, not be able to get any credit, to rebuilding, and now having a company that grew from a small family business, you know, to-- to a global brand, traded now on the New York Stock Exchange, under the symbol WWE.
Snow: What would be your first piece of business, [your] first piece of legislation that you would push for?
McMahon: I would want legislation to, to really incentivize small business owners to be able to create jobs. Whether that's a tax incentive, whether it's tax cuts, some kind of tax relief, it's got to be combined with reduction in spending.
Snow: If you were there now, with the health care reform debate that's going on ... where would you stand on that? Have you been following it at all?
McMahon: I've been following it. I find it very confusing. I think, you know, we've got one bill that's been passed in the House, one bill that's been passed in the Senate. Now we've got closed door meetings going on again, for the, you know, in the conference committee, to try to merge these two bills. I could not vote for a health care plan that I believe is going to increase costs, not decrease costs. I think there's a danger that that health care bill is gonna come between patients and their doctors.
Snow: You've been a CEO, and you've owned your business, built your business, as you mentioned. You've never held public office. What are your qualifications for being senator?
McMahon: I think that we are gonna change Washington, by sending non-politicians to Washington, people with real-life business experience, who do understand how to build a business. Yes, you need to learn the government policy, and how the Senate works, and that sorta thing. But I think those are certainly things you can learn. ... What I've found, as I'm doing, like, I'm doin' today, coming out in small businesses, mingling and talking with people all around, you know, the state. What I'm really hearing is that they want outsiders. They don't want more of the same. They want someone with fresh ideas. They want new blood, new faces.
Snow: But, you see a steep learning curve?
McMahon: Oh, yes. I would be naive to think that there's not a lot you have to learn, relative to government. But certainly, I think the experience that I have is one, also, that you can't necessarily be taught quickly.
Snow: Connecticut [is] not exactly a Republican stronghold. Obama won by 22 points in Connecticut. I think the last time that there was a Republican senator, was back in the '80's. So, how do you win a ... blue, blue state, like Connecticut?
McMahon: By focusing on the issues. And that's what's happened. I don't know how many Republicans or Democrats we'd have, you know, having lunch in here today. But, when I am traveling around the state -- and that's what I've been doing -- I've doing a lot of retail politicking, shaking hands, lookin' people in the eye, you know, across the state. And what they're telling me is, it's about the issues. Whether you're Republican or Democrat, they really want someone who has real-life business experience, who understands what they're about.
Snow: Do you consider yourself a moderate? Do you consider yourself conservative? How do you define yourself?
McMahon: I'm a fiscal conservative. I'm a Republican [with] values of smaller government, you know, less taxes. And we need to belt-tighten. I have, you know, I'm probably a little more moderate on social issues.
Snow: So, would you be willing to work with the Obama administration?
McMahon: Any senator or [congressman], man or woman, who goes to Washington, has to be willing to work with the administration. I think that's what -- how you make progress in government. This is, you know, I really do believe in a two-party system, and a bipartisan effort. But you've got to be willing to negotiate.
Snow: Any particular issue that you could see ... [you] would definitely work with Democrats on that?
McMahon: Well I wouldn't be issue specific, as we're sitting here today. I just think it would be my mantra, clearly, to try to find, you know, common ground, but maintaining your principles, maintaining what you believe is important, and fighting for those.
Snow: How much money are you willing to spend out of your own pocket to get to the Senate?
McMahon: Well, I've said I'm willing to spend, you know, what it takes for the people in Connecticut to get to know who I am, and what I stand for.
Snow: There's been a $50 million figure out there.
McMahon: I've heard that. (laughs)
Snow: Have you said that?
McMahon: I've, I've said that. I've said, you know -- I've said, I would, you know, I'd be willing to spend ... if it takes $50 million. Here's why: because I am a political unknown in the state.
Snow: I think you've spent about $5 million on your campaign so far ... $30,000 you've given to Town Committees, which is how this the system works here in Connecticut ... John Wilson, in Preston, Conn., he's with the Republican Town Committee there. And he was quoted as saying, "It feels like they're trying to buy our vote," that you're trying to buy your way into the U.S. Senate. What do you say to that?
McMahon: Well, I've heard that, you know, from day one. I think the voters here in Connecticut should be insulted to be -- have it be suggested that they could be bought.
Snow: Chris Dodd [longtime senator who announced Jan. 6, 2010, that he would not for run for re-election] dropping out of the race. Was that a surprise to you?
McMahon: Not really. ... Rumors had been rampant, you know, insider rumors, you know, for quite a while.
Snow: How much do you think you had to do with his decision?
McMahon: I don't know. It might have focused attention, really. I think his poll numbers just didn't come up. But his poll numbers have not been up for a while. And I think that he had lost trust of the people of Connecticut. And, I was comin' on pretty strong, too.
Snow: Are you less concerned about [Democratic Connecticut Attorney General Richard] Blumenthal?
McMahon: No, I'm an underdog in this race. And I mean -- Blumenthal, I think, is gonna be a really tough candidate. And coming into the race, you know, as a very popular attorney general. I think it's gonna be a tough race. And look, he's Washington's guy. He's gonna have the backing of the full Democratic party, and that's gonna have a lot of weight, and carry a lot.
Snow: Do you have the backing of the Republican Party?
McMahon: I have met with the Republican Party in Washington. I've met with the Republican Senatorial Committee. And had good conversations before I actually decided to enter the race, when I was thinking of it.
Snow: Well, they say publically, that they're not taking sides, and they'll leave it up to the voters. But, I just wondered if, behind the scenes, do you get a sense that they'd love for you to be the one?
McMahon: It's growing. It's growing. (laughs)
Snow: In your TV ad, you talk about being a CEO of a major company, building the company. You never mention wrestling. Why not?
McMahon: I've not shied away at all about ...
Snow: Not embarrassed of it?
McMahon: Oh, heavens no. I am so proud of the company that-- you know, that I've been-- on the ground level in building from two employees, when just my husband and I shared a desk in basement of our house, to now a company here in Connecticut where we've created 500 jobs.
Snow: Do you worry that when voters see those videos [of old WWE wrestling moments on YouTube, which feature McMahon] that they think, 'Well, this woman is a joke"?
McMahon: Well, I'll tell you, have they seen Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know in "The Terminator" movies? Did they ever watch Ronald Regan in any of his old movies, or anything like that? It's a soap opera. ... The longest-running episodic series on television, in the history of television, is WWE.
Snow: There have been some former wrestlers who've spoken out, now that you're running, and they've been talking about wrestling, and the direction that it's gone under the WWE. [Former star wrestler] Bruno Sammartino said, "The vulgarity, the nudity, the profanity" really bothers him.
McMahon: Well, programming on WWE, as well as the company, has just evolved over the last couple of decades. You know, it's programming that was at one time primarily on late night cable television.
Snow: But you pushed the envelope?
McMahon: We have pushed the envelope. Not always, you know, not always successfully, because we can know right away when we push too far. Sponsors let us know.
Snow: I guess I'm just asking about the vulgarity, and the nudity, and such, because, you know, the Republican party tends to be (for) family values... You don't worry that voters will think about that?
McMahon: I believe that voters are going to look at what the product is. They're gonna judge me on who I am. They're gonna judge me on my view of the issues, and not necessarily -- not at all -- think that I am driven, or governed, or an image of a story that is written and put on television.
Snow: When I told people I was coming to speak with Linda McMahon, some people went, 'Who's that, now?' And when I said wife of Vince McMahon [they knew]. Is he gonna be involved in your campaign?
McMahon: Vince is very supportive of the fact that I'm running for the Senate. But look, since I resigned as the CEO, he's now the chairman and the CEO; he's pretty much got his hands full. ... I think right now, it's really very important that I establish myself, you know, as a candidate. ... I think it's very important for me to establish who I am.
Snow: We were talking before we started about the three women CEOs who are running, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorino and yourself. . . . Is there something in the water this year?
McMahon: Well, I think that women who have run large companies and built something from the ground up. C You're very focused on what you're doing. You know, you know what it's like to kinda slug it out a little bit. You've worked through -- a lot of maybe glass ceilings along the way. And I think that women are certainly very organized, very in tune to issues. And I also think they have a great sensibility, you know, with -- with the voting public. So it's time. It's a good time.