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Attacks ramp up in Connecticut GOP primary for U.S. Senate. But are voters tuned in?

Themis Klarides announced her candidacy on WTNH, where she will debate her GOP rivals on Tuesday.
Themis Klarides announced her candidacy on WTNH, where she will debate her GOP rivals on Tuesday.

Until recent escalating attacks on the front runner, Connecticut’s race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate had been oddly listless, waged by three candidates whose daily campaign schedules are not public.

A televised debate Tuesday night will provide the first and only opportunity for a broad audience to see Themis Klarides, the GOP’s socially moderate convention choice, engage two Trump loyalists, Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj.

A primary featuring candidates on opposite sides of the great divides over abortion and Donald Trump once offered the possibility of defining the political identity of a state Republican Party in transition.

But Republicans say they see little evidence their voters are closely following the mid-summer fight for a spot on the November ballot opposing Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat seeking a third term. The primary is August 9.

A low turnout would limit its value as a bellwether of Trump’s standing among GOP voters in Connecticut or their tolerance for a moderate deemed by convention delegates as the strongest candidate in a general election.

In the Republican redoubt of Darien, Representative Thomas P. O’Dea of New Canaan said there was ample foot traffic last weekend by the canopy the GOP sets up on Saturdays, a favored form of outreach by both parties in Fairfield County.

There was little buzz about the primary.

“A lot of people, at least there in Darien, were not aware of the August 9 primary,” O’Dea said. “And that’s a problem.”

The same is true in Bolton, an east-of-the-river Hartford suburb where the first selectman is Republican Pam Sawyer, who served with Klarides in the House and voted for her at the convention. There is no chatter about the fast-approaching primaries.

“It’s quiet, whisper quiet,” Sawyer said.

The race got a jolt last week from Levy attacking Klarides, the former leader of the Republican minority in the Connecticut House, in messages to supporters and a TV commercial that, together, drew gasps for their content, tone and timing.

One missive claimed Klarides, who was largely the face and voice of the GOP during six years as the House minority leader, really was a Democrat in disguise.

The ad faulted Klarides for acknowledging systemic racism in condolences on Twitter to African-Americans after the police killing of George Floyd two years ago, and it falsely accused her of helping Democrats “cheat with mail-in ballots.”

The commercial, whose images included a grainy photo of a distraught Klarides taken under unclear circumstances, was released while Klarides had suspended active campaigning to mourn the death of her 89-year-old mother, Theodora, who was buried Friday.

“I don’t think that what she’s saying is accurate, even close, and I think even she knows it’s not accurate,” O’Dea, a deputy House minority leader who supports Klarides, said of Levy, an old acquaintance.

Lumaj urged an end to the attacks, at least until after the funeral.

Tim Saler, the national GOP consultant advising Levy’s campaign, defended the ad’s line that Klarides “accused America of systemic racism,” saying most Republicans would disagree that systemic racism exists in the U.S.

He offered no example of absentee-ballot fraud in Connecticut arising from passage of a law temporarily allowing voters to use COVID-19 as excuse to vote by absentee in 2020.

Klarides’ support was not an outlier: The bill passed by votes of 144-2 in the House and 35-1 in the Senate.

The new ad cast Levy, a longtime player in establishment Republican fundraising, as an outsider in the mold of Trump and asserted, “After 22 years in office, Themis Klarides isn’t one of us.”

A majority of delegates to the Republican State Convention, including many who hold public office or chair local Republican town committees, would beg to differ.

With 56.8% of the vote, Klarides, 56, easily won a first-ballot endorsement at the convention in May despite publicly acknowledging she did not vote for Trump in 2020. Instead, she said she cast a protest write-in vote.

Her predecessor as House leader, Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk, said he was heartened by the overwhelming convention and the refusal of delegates to turn against Klarides over her break with Trump and her support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

“It gave me some hope there still remains a healthy diversity within the party, and it’s not all going in one direction,” said Cafero, who had made Klarides his key deputy, raising her profile.

A change of heart on abortion, Trump

Klarides is a fiscal and law-and-order conservative, endorsed by the Connecticut State Police Union. But she voted for the post-Sandy Hook gun controls, the codification of gay marriage in state law and is a defender of abortion rights, all potential liabilities in a low-turnout Republican primary.

“I am pro-choice, and I’ve been pro-choice my [entire] career,” said Klarides, who represented a swing district in the Naugatuck Valley for 22 years. “And I support LGBTQ rights, because I believe everybody should be treated equally.”

Democrats flipped her seat in 2020, when Klarides did not seek reelection.

Levy, 65, of Greenwich, was a commodities trader in her 20s, turning to philanthropy and eventually political fundraising after marriage and motherhood. Her reward for being a prolific GOP rainmaker was a seat on the Republican National Committee in 2017 and a nomination by Trump as ambassador to Chile in 2019. The then Republican-controlled Senate never voted on her confirmation.

A supporter of abortion rights in 2012 and critic of Trump in 2016, Levy has since repudiated both positions. She now proclaims herself opposed to all abortions, except in cases where a pregnancy is a consequence of rape or endangers the life of the pregnant person. Her campaign borrows from Trump, calling her an “America First Conservative Outsider.”

Six years ago, Levy was backing Jeb Bush for president and dismissing Trump as contemptible.

“Trump has turned the Republican primary process into a circus for his own purposes and his own aggrandizement. He is vulgar, ill-mannered and disparages those whom he cannot intimidate,” Levy wrote in a Greenwich Time opinion piece. “It is the media who have done the American voters a huge disservice by falling for his sideshows and not covering the serious candidates.”

Your question should be about the legitimacy of the committee. I’m not re-litigating the election. President Biden is the president, and if anybody doesn’t believe it, they just need to look at our economy and where our country is.
Leora Levy

Today, she faults the media for asking questions about Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection and questions the legitimacy of the congressional investigation. She offers no assessment of the testimony from former Trump aides about his inaction during the assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“Your question should be about the legitimacy of the committee,” Levy said. “I’m not re-litigating the election. President Biden is the president, and if anybody doesn’t believe it, they just need to look at our economy and where our country is.”

Levy asserts Klarides deserves blame for Gov. Ned Lamont’s touting Connecticut’s support for abortion rights to out-of-state companies as a reason to do business here.

“There’s something very wrong about that,” Levy said. “And my opponent’s vote and support for abortion have enabled our governor to do that.”

Klarides had not yet arrived in the General Assembly when it codified the tenets of Roe v. Wade in state law in 1990, though she has applauded its passage. She no longer was in office when it passed a law in 2022 declaring Connecticut a safe harbor for abortion providers and patients.

‘A true conservative’

Lumaj, 55, of Fairfield, is running for statewide office for the fourth time in 10 years. He dropped out of a Senate race before the primary in 2012, lost an election as the GOP nominee for secretary of the state in 2014, and failed to qualify for a gubernatorial primary in 2018.

With a master’s degree in law, Lumaj provides immigration services in New York, where he says he also invests in real estate with family. A self-described refugee from Communist Albania, Lumaj is a fan of Trump and free-enterprise who views Levy as a conservative poseur, Klarides as an establishment Republican, and Blumenthal and Democrats as threats to capitalism.

“The biggest threat to the Democratic Party right now is prosperity. If people prosper in the United States, the Democratic Party becomes obsolete,” Lumaj said. “There’s no values and they are trying to prevent people from prospering. You look at every city, inner city, in United States that is ruled by the Democrats. Look at the way they are.”

During the 2018 race for governor, Lumaj told a Republican town committee he rejected an offer by the Trump administration to return to Albania as the U.S. ambassador, a claim the administration declined to confirm or deny. In an interview at the Southport Diner in Fairfield, he gestured towards another booth where he said a member of the Trump family made the offer.

Like Levy, Lumaj is an opponent of abortion. Unlike Levy, his position is unchanged.

“I’m a true conservative. I believe in God, family and country. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in the founding documents of this country,” Lumaj said. “I’m pro life, I’m pro Second Amendment. And these are things that I bring to the table that no one else does.”

The biggest threat to the Democratic Party right now is prosperity. If people prosper in the United States, the Democratic Party becomes obsolete.
Peter Lumaj

All three Republicans describe themselves as supporters of the Second Amendment, as do most, if not all, of the 15 Republican senators and 14 House members who voted with Blumenthal and other Democrats to pass a gun safety bill in response to the Uvalde, Texas school shooting.

Lumaj refused to say if he would have voted for the law, which requires enhanced background checks for gun buyers under age 21, among other things.

“Tell me about the details of the bill,” he said.

You haven’t read about them?

“I just want to know if you read them,” he said.

Lumaj smiled, clearly enjoying the exchange.

Pressed for an answer about how he would have voted, he repeatedly riffed on myriad aspects of gun control and crime, never quite landing on an answer about how he would have voted.

“We need to go after illegal guns in this country,” he said “And if there are mental illnesses and problems of people out there, we should absolutely go after these things. On the other hand, the Second Amendment is the Second Amendment. I believe in the Second Amendment. And the reason why I believe in that, my family was persecuted severely in the country that we didn’t have a Second Amendment.”

Levy said she objected to a provision encouraging states to pass laws like one in Connecticut that authorizes the temporary seizure of firearms from owners deemed unfit. It should have required stronger due process provisions for gun owners, she said.

In 2013, Klarides was among 20 state House Republicans who voted with the Democratic majority after the Sandy Hook school shooting for one of the nation’smost comprehensive gun laws. It enhanced background checks for the purchase of firearms and ammunition and banned the sale of certain military-style rifles and large-capacity magazines.

Klarides called the gun vote difficult, but defended Republicans for participating in its crafting over the objections of some gun owners, saying the result was a better law.

Levy said she would have opposed it, saying its ban of ammo magazines holding more than 10 rounds was an infringement on gun owners.

Klarides benefits from having two opponents competing to be the most conservative and most loyal to Trump. Lumaj said Levy has suggested to him there is room in the race for only one of them.

Smiling, Lumaj said he agrees wholeheartedly: Levy should drop out and endorse him.

“I would appreciate if she does that. If she were to do that, I’ll win the primary,” Lumaj said. “I can win the general, but it’s up to her.”

‘Listen: That Themis is this Themis’

The public dynamic of the Senate primary has been simple.

Klarides is ignoring Levy and Lumaj, but focusing on Blumenthal. Levy’s campaign counters that Klarides has been quietly working for months to undermine Levy in contacts with GOP activists.

Levy is ignoring Lumaj, and targeting Klarides (and effectively acknowledging her as frontrunner). Lumaj zings all of them, though not since the death of Klarides’ mother.

Klarides’ pitch is twofold: One, she is the only candidate in the field who has won elections, held office and confronted Democrats in floor debates and other venues; Two, with an approval rating barely above water, the 76-year-old Blumenthal might be vulnerable to the right opponent.

I’m going to be this guy’s worst nightmare, because I’m not going to back down. And I’m not just telling you I’m not. I’ve actually proved it.
Themis Klarides

“I say it every day: Do you believe that Dick Blumenthal has lost his fastball and is not representing the people of Connecticut?” Klarides said. “If you believe that’s the case, you should want the person who has the best chance to beat him. And that is absolutely me.”

The House GOP leader for her last six years in office, Klarides described herself as the “arch nemesis” of Gov Ned Lamont and his predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, both Democrats. She promises the do the same with Blumenthal.

“I’m going to be this guy’s worst nightmare, because I’m not going to back down,” Klarides said. “And I’m not just telling you I’m not. I’ve actually proved it.”

Klarides, who represented Derby in the legislature, spoke in an interview at the home by a creek in Madison she now shares with her husband, Greg Butler, a widower and senior Eversource executive she married in 2020.

The interviews with Klarides and Lumaj took place before the death of Klarides mother and the escalation of Levy’s attacks in emails to supporters and, more recently, two television commercials. Levy was interviewed Monday, a day before Lumaj urged a cessation of attacks

Even before the period of mourning, Klarides had waged a subdued campaign, unusual for a politician who often has reveled in blunt gestures intended to discomfit opponents, especially the men who tend to dominate the top positions in Hartford.

At a Connecticut Business and Industry Association forum in 2017, where participants were given foam stress-reliever balls with the CBIA logo, Klarides made a memorable impression by setting two them on the table and saying, “We need to grow a set of these.”

Liking the reaction, she kept them as props to be employed for months.

At the Republican National Convention in 2012, Klarides spontaneously seconded a motion by a Rhode Island delegate to amend the platform to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples — surprising even the sponsor of the motion. Hard stares followed her second, which forced a vote no one wanted to take.

“You would have thought I took off all my clothes and stood in the middle of the aisle,” she said later.

That daring and playfulness has been absent from her campaign for Senate. Klarides has campaigned with caution, aware that being too aggressive in a primary could turn off elements of a GOP base.

“Listen, that Themis is this Themis,” she said.

At the debate Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WTNH, Channel 8, Klarides can expect to be the target of gibes disqualifying her in the eyes of conservative voters. Her challenge will be making a rebuttal that does not cost her in November.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.