NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican town committees, the state Republican Party and various local candidates while she pursues a seat in the U.S. Senate, according to a review of state election records by The Associated Press.
McMahon, who is making her second bid for Senate this year after falling short in 2010, has contributed about $41,000 since 2009 to more than 70 town committees, grassroots political organizations that appoint delegates to the state convention. She has given $15,000 annually, or $60,000 total, to the state party since 2009, according to Zak Sanders, director of operations for Connecticut Republicans.
The donations to local party committees are legal. Nevertheless, McMahon's contributions, which dwarf those of other candidates, have sparked criticism from opponents that she is trying to buy her way into office.
David King, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said the donations amount to smart politics.
"It's very wise and not widely done," said David King, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "That pays off in terms of loyalty and boots on the ground when it comes time to getting folks out to the polls. Favors beget favors. It's uncommon for people to contribute to local party organizations so every little dollar helps and every dollar is remembered."
McMahon, who spent $50 million on her 2010 race, gave about $34,000 in donations to Republican town committees during that election cycle. She has given about $7,000 to 20 Republican town committees during this cycle, in which she is trying to galvanize grassroots support as she faces a potent challenge from former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays for the GOP nomination.
Her campaign says the donations are intended to strengthen the party.
"In the context of giving money for an ad for a Lincoln Day dinner or to a fundraiser, you're helping local candidates get elected," said Corry Bliss, McMahon's campaign manager. "That money is to help local candidates get elected, to help the RTC to be organized, to put out pamphlets, to buy pizza for volunteers. That effort has nothing to do with Linda McMahon or her campaign."
McMahon is running to succeed U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who decided not to seek a fifth term. Shays and two of the three leading Democrats seeking that seat have contributed about $2,400 combined since 2009 to local town committees and other candidates.
State GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola said McMahon has won praise for reviving local parties through her generosity, but some of McMahon's rivals complain she is trying to buy political influence.
One Republican rival, Southbury attorney Kie Westby, posted an online video Monday criticizing McMahon's donations. He said other candidates typically buy tickets to town committee fundraisers, but McMahon's contributions are far wider and "morally wrong."
"I think that the attempt is to buy influence and collect political favors," he said.
Shays said he believes McMahon's contributions are having an effect.
"She lavishes her money on a lot of people and we know it has impact," he said in a written statement. "But it's clear to many delegates that her money can't buy a general election. She lost by 12 points in a Republican year and polls show she's losing by 15 percent this time."
In response, Bliss said Shays' criticism is disingenuous because his campaign is employing at least two state representatives and two RTC chairmen. He said that McMahon's campaign won't employ state lawmakers or RTC officials and that it's offensive to imply that support from town committees can be influenced by a contribution of a few hundred dollars.
Of the more than 100 endorsements from Republican Town Committee leaders advertised by McMahon's campaign, the AP found that slightly less than half of the officials are leaders or former leaders of committees that received donations.
George Gallo, a former state Republican Party chairman, said there were candidates who made such contributions during his time but not to the extent of McMahon. Gallo, who has endorsed McMahon in the primary, said it is good strategy generally to strengthen the Republican infrastructure.
Colleen O'Connor, chairwoman of the West Haven Republican Town Committee, said the committee was happy to receive a $250 donation from McMahon last year but hasn't yet made an endorsement. She said contributions could factor into such decisions for some people.
"It might sway them if they were on the fence," O'Connor said.
Susan Haigh reported from Hartford.