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Connecticut's Republican primary has been quiet — with high stakes

Jessica Hill
Themis Klarides, former state House minority leader, is the Connecticut GOP endorsed candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Members of Connecticut’s Republican and Democratic parties will have the chance to vote in the primaries on August 9. The Republican race for the United States Senate has been quiet — but it could heat up after Tuesday’s debate.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas, its co-founder and capitol bureau chief, to discuss his article, “Attacks ramp up in CT GOP primary for U.S. Senate. But are voters tuned in?” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Are voters tuned in, Mark?

MP: Well, the evidence so far seems to be no. This has been an unusual campaign until the recent week or so when things got a little heated. But you know, this is the first campaign I have covered in a fairly long career in which when you're two or three weeks out prior to a primary, and there's no daily schedule, there's no way to sort of track the candidates in real time and observe their interactions with each other, and with the public.

So I assume things will be a little bit more high profile now in these final two weeks. There is a debate Tuesday night on channel 8, and that will give a broader audience an opportunity for the first time to see how the three of them engage together.

WSHU: Now, could we set the table here, who are the three candidates running for the Connecticut GOP senate nomination?

MP: So the candidate endorsed by the Republican State Convention is Themis Klarides. She was a state legislator for 22 years. The final six years she was the House Republican minority leader. She won the state convention overwhelmingly. There were two others who have qualified for the primary, Leora Levy, she's a member of the Republican National Committee. And Peter Lumaj, who is running for statewide office for the fourth time. He was on the ballot a couple cycles ago as the nominee for Secretary of the State.

And it's an interesting dynamic that in Themis Klarides, this is unusual in contemporary Republican politics right now, given that she is on the record as not voting for Donald Trump in 2020. And she's also a social moderate. She is a supporter of abortion rights, gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues. Although she is kind of an old fashioned law and order and fiscal conservative Republican. Her two rivals are both Donald Trump loyalists, they make an issue of that. And they are both very much opposed to abortion, although in the case of Leora Levy, that's a late in life conversion. She had been publicly critical of Donald Trump in 2016, when he ran, and she also identified herself as pro-choice.

WSHU: It's interesting because Peter Marsh is very right wing, he is actually attacking Levy for being more moderate. And so she's tried to burnish her conservative credentials. From what I understand she had supported Jeb Bush in 2016, initially, and moved all the way to Trump. So how much of that is the dynamic? Who's trying to be more pro Trump?

MP: Well, yes, that is the dynamic. And Themis Klarides has, for boxing fans, I would describe her campaign as kind of the old Muhammad Ali of rope-a-dope of just sort of laying back. And she's doing her best to publicly ignore Levy and Lumaj to focus on Senator Blumenthal, who will be the opponent for whoever wins the primary. And Levy is clearly aiming her guns at Klarides. Lumaj is sort of digging at both of them. But yeah, to your point — I mean, Peter Lumaj— nobody questions his authenticity of his conservative views. He has held those views ever since he's been in public life. And he is correct when he raises questions about Leora Levy's opinions about the former president and other things that she has changed and yes, she originally was a Jeb Bush supporter in 2016.

When he faltered, she kind of bounced around to a couple other candidates. She wrote a memorable opinion piece for the Greenwich Time describing Donald Trump as vulgar, ill mannered and something of a bully that the media has wrongly propped up with all the attention he was garnering in 2016. Her tune has changed.

WSHU: You say this has been pretty low profile. There haven't been any ads, anything on the internet about this race?

MP: The ads have become pretty sharp in the last week or so. But when I talk about low key I'm talking about the actual stuff out in public. All three of them are out in public. But again, they have not really tried to engage the media into a lot of coverage about this up until now.

WSHU: So what would you be looking out for in this televised debate?

MP: A couple of things. One will be what's the dynamic of the debate? Will both Lumaj and Levy be only targeting Themis Klarides as the de facto front runner? And as a reporter, I mean, the challenge will be to sort of be fact checking things in real time as they make claims about each other. Themis Klarides is the one who has an extensive political record voting as a legislator for 22 years. Leora Levy has a public record as far as her statements, certainly for a couple of presidential cycles now.

WSHU: And Lumaj has run several times for office.

MP: Yes, he has. Twice for governor, once for United States Senate and once for the Secretary of the State.

WSHU: So are you anticipating another low turnout in this election?

MP: Four years ago, there was a five wave Republican primary for governor. Really the whole ballot, there were primaries. And having that many candidates spending money to get out the vote only generated a turnout of about 31%. And that's the scary thing about these low turnout primaries.

Now in the case of Bob Stefanowski, I don't think anybody would describe him as an extremist. But that's the danger of when you have 30,000 or 40,000 voters deciding who's going to be a party nominee in a state where it requires 600,000 votes or more to win a statewide election. That's always a point of concern for, you know, for the parties.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.