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Trump will influence Connecticut’s upcoming election — even if the GOP doesn't want him to

Wills Pike, the master of ceremonies at the Montville Republican Town Committee barbecue, and Leora Levy, who is aspiring to the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, listen as Donald Trump speaks on Levy's phone.
Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
Wills Pike, the master of ceremonies at the Montville Republican Town Committee barbecue, and Leora Levy, who is aspiring to the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, listen as Donald Trump speaks on Levy's phone.

Results from the Connecticut Republican primary revealed Donald Trump’s influence on the party may be stronger than party officials thought. Leora Levy, the Trump-endorsed candidate, beat party nominee Themis Klarides to run against Senator Richard Blumenthal in the November election.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas to discuss his article, “Does Trump define the CT GOP? ‘Wrong question,’ says chair,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: You're asking the question following the surprise victory of Trump-endorsed Leora Levy in the Connecticut GOP U.S. Senate primary. So let's start there. How did Levy defeat party endorsed candidate Themis Klarides?

MP: Well, she was the only candidate for statewide office in either primary who beat the endorsed candidates. And clearly the difference in the U.S. Senate primary that the Republicans held was the endorsement of Donald J. Trump.

He made a surprise call to her the Thursday before the election during the Republican event in Montville. She very happily held up her phone to the microphone and played a message from former President Trump. He held a telephone rally the night before the primary. But it's pretty clear that that was persuasive.

She carried 51% of the vote in a three way primary, which is very impressive. The other thing that was significant here is the other Trump loyalist, Peter Lumaj took 9%. So 60% of the Republicans who turned out voted for somebody who was committed to Donald Trump as opposed to Themis Klarides, who was the party-endorsed candidate who did not vote for Trump's re-election.

So it did make it somewhat of a test about the mood of the Republican Party regarding its loyalty to Donald Trump.

WSHU: Now, you said the party chair says that's the wrong question. Why does he feel that's the wrong question? I mean, the majority of the people who showed up at the polls in the GOP primary voted for candidates who are affiliated with Donald Trump.

MP: It's the wrong question only because it's an inconvenient question for the Republican Party in Connecticut right now. Ben Proto, the state party chair, was doing his best to steer the conversation back on to a playing field where the only issues are President Biden’s struggling approval rating, inflation, and whatnot. And, of course, that is something he knows is not going to be possible for the foreseeable future. I mean, there's plenty of time between now and November.

But right now, this is a struggle for the Republicans, this was something of a shock to the system. At the state party convention in May, convention delegates rallied around Themis Klarides, even Conservatives who disagreed with her support for abortion rights or for her vote for the Sandy Hook gun law when she was a member of the General Assembly. But they really sided with her, you know, just about 57% of the delegates sided with her, because they thought it was the smartest play.

Even if they disagreed with her on certain issues, they saw her as the strongest candidate to oppose Senator Richard Blumenthal in November, and that it would, you know, neutralize a little bit the issue of abortion as well as the question of the influence of Donald Trump. Neither one of those things is a particularly useful issue for Republicans in Connecticut right now.

WSHU: And talking about an issue for Republicans. We have a gubernatorial candidate, who seems to have been very quiet following the primary. We're talking about Bob Stefanowski. What's happening with his campaign right now? How is he reacting to what happened in the primary?

MP: The contrast was very clear. The day after the primary, Democratic Governor Ned Lamont was out with Lieutenant Governor Bysiewicz celebrating the next phase of the campaign. They're very comfortable with the ticket that is now put together after the Democratic primary. Bob Stefanowski sort of laid low. He put out a very bland statement of congratulations. He did not name anybody. So it was unclear who he was congratulating exactly.

The awkwardness for Bob Stefanowski is he has really worked hard to distance himself from Trump and from the issue of abortion. He has an ad currently airing, in which he says, both Ned Lamont and I are pro-choice. So let's talk about finances. Let's talk about the economy. Let's talk about anything except abortion and Donald Trump. Stefanowski contributed to Leora Levy, the winner of the primary; he gave the maximum amount allowed by law. He said one of the major reasons is that she had supported him four years ago when he first ran for governor and she asked.

But the Democrats are saying, 'look, that is a de facto endorsement of Leora Levy.' The governor said that Bob Stefanowski, Leora Levy, and Donald Trump, are peas in a pod, and you're going to be hearing that from now until November.

WSHU: Interesting. Now, let's look at the turnout. What does that say, that it was about 20% of the Republicans that showed up in the primary? What does that say about the rest of the party? And what does that say about what will happen in November?

MP: Well, that's really a great question. Because you know, when you try to analyze this on the one hand, it was a very strong victory by Leora Levy. Anytime you get more than 50% of the vote in a three-way race, that's pretty good.

But the turnout was so low, that that raises a question about how much enthusiasm really was there for this. There are more than 400,000 registered Republicans, Leora got about 45,000 votes. So she picked up maybe 10%, 12% of the total support from the total number of Republicans.

WSHU: Now, Trump apparently is going to play a role in this election, whether Bob Stefanowski likes it or not.

MP: Yes. You know, the Democrats now can say, 'look, this is one of the people on the same ticket as Bob Stefanowski, she was a diehard supporter of President Trump, whose support helped her win a primary.'

Now, I doubt very much that we will see Donald Trump come to Connecticut. Look with Trump, you cannot ever rule anything out. But it would not make any sense politically, either for Leora Levy or the rest of the ticket.

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.