Vince McMahon once pretended to choke his daughter Stephanie with a pipe on television in 2003 during a staged wrestling match. In another match in 2001, he told a woman to grovel on the floor, bark like a dog, and then take her clothes off. Vince and his wife, Linda, along with their children control World Wrestling Entertainment, a billion-dollar professional wrestling company that trades in fake kicks to the groin as well as more lurid fare.
Linda McMahon won the Republican primary for Senate in Connecticut on Aug. 10, beating out former CIA analyst, congressman, and Vietnam veteran Rob Simmons. She trails the state's Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal by merely 10 points. Blumenthal's lead has evaporated from 41 points in January, mostly due to his misleading statements about serving in Vietnam. While McMahon didn't win the endorsement of family-values groups, they didn't attack her either. The Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC), a 20-year-old family-values group, upbraided her opponent, Simmons, who opposes a ban on partial-birth abortion and received a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Peter Wolfgang, president of the FIC, said Simmons is "one of the most pro-abortion politicians we've come across." McMahon, on the other hand, supports restrictions on abortion like parental consent and a ban on partial-birth abortions-even though she supports Roe v. Wade.
"By New England standards, she's probably the best we're likely to get. I hesitate to convey the label 'pro-life' on her-she's not pro-life," Wolfgang told me. "It's an interesting situation for us."
He acknowledges her leadership of WWE is troubling: "That network has injected a lot of poison into our popular culture. The bigger problem is . . . she seems unrepentant about it." Indeed, McMahon has waved off criticism about the violent, sexual nature of the programming, calling it a "soap opera." WWE has cleaned up its act to a PG rating in recent years, but McMahon calls that a business decision.
Conservative voters will be turning out more this year than in recent elections, and looking to pro-life groups for education on candidates' stances. But for these groups in New England and elsewhere in this primary season, choosing a favorite in primaries especially can be tricky: A candidate more likely to win the election could have a less appealing resumé on life issues than other primary opponents.
But Wolfgang makes the argument for backing imperfect, electable candidates: "Noble defeat does not help the unborn." If pro-life groups back long-shot candidates in primaries and they lose, the groups vanquish influence in the general election. On the other hand, Wolfgang explained, "If we're making choices on political viability and nothing else, we might as well close up shop." Groups are trying to thread the needle in primaries without demolishing their chances to elect a pro-life candidate in general elections.
At the beginning of this year, such a dilemma unfolded for family-values groups in the Senate special election in Massachusetts to fill Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat. Republican Scott Brown is pro-abortion but opposes federal funding for abortion and partial-birth abortion. And while he supports gay civil unions, he opposes gay marriage. The political arms of Massachusetts Family Institute and Massachusetts Citizens for Life got behind Brown, seeing him as a good, electable alternative to Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. "It's rocky soil up here in New England," Kris Mineau, president of Massachusetts Family Institute, told me at the time.
But earlier, in the primary, groups had a tougher choice: Brown's challenger, lawyer Jack Robinson, said he was pro-life (though the groups said he had just changed his position for the primary). And he supports same-sex marriage. He didn't win support from either Massachusetts Citizens for Life or Massachusetts Family Institute, and he lost the primary by a wide margin. FIC's Wolfgang weighed in on the groups' endorsements of Brown: "He always stood with them on the marriage issue. Our friends in Massachusetts-it was not a strict political viability calculation."
So Scott Brown, famous for having posed nude in Cosmopolitan at age 22, won the backing of family-values groups-and defeated Coakley in one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory.
Even when a group throws its weight behind one pro-life candidate, the pro-life vote can be divided. In the Aug. 3 Michigan Republican primary for governor, a candidate who supports embryonic stem-cell research, Rick Snyder, beat out several pro-lifers. Right to Life of Michigan had made the tough choice between two pro-lifers, choosing the one they considered more politically viable: Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who had more name recognition in the state than U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra.
The endorsement was a surprise; given a choice between two pro-life candidates, groups typically back the one with the longer voting record. Right to Life of Michigan had endorsed Hoekstra for the 17 years he has been in office, while it had only backed Cox in his two races to be attorney general. Hoekstra called the members of the group "political opportunists." "They made a political calculation. They chose and they chose poorly," he told me. The Cox campaign didn't reply to a request for comment.
Larry Galmish, the director of Right to Life of Michigan's PAC, said the decision was "hard." He acknowledged, "The board tried to select the candidate that had the strongest campaign." Cox ended up in third behind Hoekstra.
For voters in general, endorsements don't carry too much water. Six in 10 voters during the 2008 election said endorsements didn't affect their choice on the presidential ballot, according to a USA Today poll. But pro-life endorsements are weighty for voters who decide on that single issue.
"In a sense, though, these organizations are not determining people's votes," wrote Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in an email. "They are acting as mediating forces by interpreting for voters the candidates' views on issues the voters have said they care about. This is especially true in primaries, where only a fraction of the voters show up. This fraction tends to be the most ideological and issue-oriented in the American electorate."
Endorsements can at least launch little-known candidates into the spotlight. Sarah Palin endorsed businessman Brian Murphy for the Republican primary for governor in Maryland over former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who has described himself more as a centrist and independent.
Before Palin's endorsement, many pollsters didn't bother including Murphy in polls on the Republican primary. In the first four days after Palin's Aug. 5 endorsement, The Washington Post wrote two lengthy articles about Murphy that appeared on the front pages of the Metro section.
But Murphy isn't expected to come close to winning the Sept. 14 primary-and if he did, he would most likely lose the general election, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1. Media buzz is one thing, votes are another. Palin's endorsed candidate in the Kansas Republican primary for Senate, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, lost to Rep. Jerry Moran Aug. 3.
In Florida, advocates switched tactics: They didn't endorse anyone for the Republican governor's primary, coming up Aug. 24. Florida Right to Life, seeing two pro-life candidates before them in Bill McCollum and Rick Scott, simply graded their pro-life-ness. Both received an "A" grade.
"There wasn't one that stood out," said Carrie Eisnaugle, president of Florida Right to Life. "We felt the rating process was more fair." The group interviewed both candidates and asked them both to fill out a questionnaire. Both scored 100 percent on the test.
I asked Eisnaugle why Florida Right to Life wouldn't pick one candidate anyway, based on who might have a better chance at winning. "Viability is something the PAC used to look at more, but this year it was decided we would take a more purist stance," Eisnaugle said. "We just want to get any pro-life person into office."