Conservative enough? CT’s GOP hopefuls for U.S. Senate debate social issues

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NEW HAVEN — The two conservative challengers for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination put the squeeze on Themis Klarides, the endorsed, moderate candidate in their 3-way debate Tuesday night heading into the August 9 primary.

Klarides’ views are outside the GOP mainstream, Peter Lumaj of Fairfield and Leora Levy of Greenwich charged.

Both of the conservatives worked to stake out the far-right, highlighting Klarides’ votes for gun safety legislation after the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012, as well as her support for women’s reproductive rights.

Lumaj and Levy both said they would support former President Donald Trump if he were the Republican candidate for president in 2024. Klarides said she would have to see the candidates.

The 45-minute debate in the studios of WTNH News 8 was a highlight of a primary election that could be won with 35,000 votes based on an expected midsummer turnout of Republicans.

Klarides, the only candidate of the three who has won elective office, said her 22 years in the General Assembly has made her the best-prepared to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, with her deep knowledge and experience of what it takes to be a lawmaker.

“I’m a proven winner and I’m a proven fighter,” said Klarides, led the Republican minority in the state House of Representatives in her last six years in office. “Joe Biden and Dick Blumenthal have surrendered this country to the radical left. It’s given us record inflation. It’s given us open borders where fentanyl flows through our streets, and it’s given us an unsafe place to live because of defunding the police.”

Neither Biden nor Blumenthal has supported moves to reduce police forces. Republicans say measures to increase police accountability after the George Floyd murder in 2020, including in Connecticut, have reduced police effectiveness.

Levy, a 6-year member of the Republican Natioonal Committee and a prolific fundraiser for the party, has portrayed herself as an outsider.

“I am not a career politician,” the Cuban-born Levy said. “I’m a career American. We have a great opportunity to win in November, to defeat Dick Blumenthal, but it matters who we nominate. I’m a principled common-sense conservative. Blumenthal is the face of Biden in Connecticut. I am running to rid Connecticut of the Blumenthal blight.”

Levy charged that Connecticut has channeled $1.1 billion in federal COVID-relief funding to teach so-called critical race theory in public schools. When pressed on the issue by reporters after the debate, she said she would have to provide the data later.

The Albanian-born Lumaj, an immigration attorney, said he’s the only consistent conservative, characterizing Klarides, of Madison, as “center left” and Levy, who was a commodities trader, as both a former Trump critic and a former abortion-rights supporter. Levy was quoted as supporting women’s right to choose abortion as a delegate for Mitt Romney at the 2012 GOP national convention.

Levy, for her part, charged that Lumaj and Klarides seem to be working in tandem against her campaign. “It looks like they’re colluding,” Levy told reporters during the post-debate spin session.

All three claimed the ability to defeat Blumenthal, whose campaign war chest totals $8 million.

“Everything that America stands for is under attack,” Lumaj said during the debate. “What we need right now to defeat Blumenthal, we need someone who has the character, the background and the fortitude to be a true Republican, to be a conservative. There is a clear distinction in this race. It is between Themis Klarides and I.”

The three candidates stood up during the debate, with Klarides in the middle of the TV set, fielding questions from Dennis House, chief political anchor, and Jodi Latina, chief political correspondent. While it was mostly civil, Klarides noted that Levy and her husband had supported Democrats in the past with political contributions, including money to Blumenthal a quarter-century ago.

In response, Levy said it was her husband’s contribution. She alluded to Klarides’ marriage to Greg Butler, a top Eversource executive, and possible hikes in consumer utility costs.

Gary L. Rose, chairman of the Department of Government at Sacred Heart University, said after the debate that while Klarides showed her expertise on major issues, Levy and Lumaj did a good job in appealing to conservative primary voters.

“It was very clear to me that Themis Klarides came across the me as one who could challenge Blumenthal,” Rose said in a phone interview late Tuesday. “But this debate was about winning a primary, and to win the Republican primary, I thought Levy and Lumaj were having a more direct connection to Republican voters than Themis Klarides.”

Even though Levy has changed positions over the years — she told reporters she has evolved — Rose said she might have stood out the most for Connecticut conservatives planning to vote in the primary.

“I felt Levy demonstrated the most fire up there on stage that probably connected with most Republicans,” Rose said. “This was very important for her to show voters she will fight. Lumaj came across more as a statesman, while Levy was the more-passionate type of conservative.”

Rose added, “Both Levy and Lumaj are conservative on guns and abortion. Those are important issues to Republicans. There is still a good swath of moderate Republicans in Connecticut, but the party has moved to the right. Levy and Lumaj were addressing them in a way that the Republicans watching this could be saying ‘Hey, I agree with them.’ Tonight was all about August 9.”

Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo, in a written statement after the debate, warned that if Republicans take over the Senate this fall, Connecticut could feel the pain.

“Regardless of who wins the Republican primary, the first vote they would take if elected to the United States Senate would be to make Mitch McConnell the majority leader,” DiNardo said. “A Mitch McConnell-led Senate will push for a national ban on abortion, corporate handouts and cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other programs Americans need now more than ever. All three Republicans would be a consistent vote for the McConnell agenda, which is fully out of step with Connecticut values.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT