What does the future hold for Connecticut Republicans? U.S. Senate primary is a defining moment

Tuesday’s primary for the nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in November will be a referendum on the soul of the Connecticut Republican Party.

If moderate Themis Klarides — the convention-endorsed candidate — wins, GOP voters will have reaffirmed their support for middle-of-the-road politics, for which Connecticut Republicans have been known for decades.

If either Leora Levy, of Greenwich, or Peter Lumaj, of Fairfield, emerges with the nomination, state Republicans will have abandoned their reputations for being socially liberal, lurching toward the ultra-conservative MAGA right. Levy’s late-campaign endorsement from Donald Trump on Thursday night, in a phone call during an event in Montville, adds more gravity to Primary Day.

Klarides, of Madison, the former House minority leader of the General Assembly with 22 years in the legislature, has a major advantage, being at the top of the ballot. Another factor in her favor is that Lumaj, an immigration attorney, and Levy, a big-money contributor who is a member of the Republican National Committee, could split the hard-right vote in a solid blue state that hasn’t had a Republican U.S. senator since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. left office in 1988 after serving 17 years.

“I am proud to be endorsed by those who know how to win in Connecticut: mayors, first selectmen, town councilors, state representatives, state senators, and town committee chairs,” Klarides said in a statement Friday morning in response to Trump’s endorsement of Levy. “From Greenwich to Putnam; Torrington to Stonington, I have the support of the grassroots, the Republican party, law enforcement — including the full endorsement of the State Police and the Fraternal Order of Police — and those who actually win elections this state.”

If Levy, who has touted endorsements from ultra-conservative members of Congress as well as a high rating from the National Rifle Association, or Lumaj, who calls himself the most-conservative candidate in the race — pulls off a victory on Tuesday, it could indicate that Connecticut Republicans are moving more in line with a national party that is still paying fealty to Trump, and working against women’s reproductive rights. Klarides supports abortion rights, albeit with some limitations.

But with less than 30 percent of the more than 463,000 registered Republicans likely to cast ballots, the winner will be determined by turnout.

In the 20 years since the last September primary, Republicans have failed to reach 30 percent primary participation.

When Linda McMahon won the right to challenge Blumenthal in 2010, only 29.8 percent of GOP voters turned out for the three-way primary, for which McMahon received 60,479 votes.

The 2014 primary for the GOP governor nomination, when Tom Foley, of Greenwich, received 44,144 votes to John McKinney, of Fairfield’s, 35,282, had an anemic 19.5 percent turnout.

Most endorsed candidates win the primaries, with a few notable exceptions, including Bob Stefanowski, who garnered the GOP primary in 2018 over then-Mayor Mark Boughton, of Danbury; and the 2014 primary for lieutenant governor won by Heather Somers, of Groton over Penny Bacchiochi, of Stafford.

But if Levy or Lumaj scores the upset, it will mean that Connecticut Republicans have taken a sharp turn to the right.

Klarides, who voted for the historic gun-safety measures following the Sandy Hook School shooting of 2012, stresses that she supports reproductive rights. She continually criticizes Blumenthal and Biden, stressing that she represents a stark choice.

“I’m the only candidate who can beat Dick Blumenthal in November,” is her mantra on the campaign trial, most recently on WFSB Channel 3’s “CT ’22” program recorded on Thursday for Sunday broadcast. “I want to give Connecticut and this country back to the people,” she said. “I don’t feel that Dick Blumenthal represents Connecticut. I feel he represents Joe Biden and the radical left, and I don’t feel like that’s representative of Connecticut or this country. People are really sick and tired that they can’t afford gas in this state. They cannot afford groceries.”

She dismissed campaign-trail criticism from Levy, Lumaj and other state conservatives. “Those are comments by people who are behind and desperate, unfortunately,” Klarides said. “I believe in lower taxes. I believe in less regulation. I believe in strong borders. I believe in supporting our law enforcement. The question people have to ask themselves on Tuesday is: Who has the best chance to beat Dick Blumenthal and that’s me because I have actually won 11 elections in this state.”

Levy cited a scheduling conflict Thursday as the reason she failed to get to the TV station, where Lumaj and Klarides were interviewed in separate segments. In the early afternoon, around the time the TV recording was finished, Levy released an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, of South Carolina, who after the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, voted against the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

Within hours, during a local GOP picnic in Montville, Levy, wielding her mobile phone, got a personal call from Trump with an endorsement that may or may not help her campaign with five days before the primary.

“I am running to take on the far left, whose policies will make our country look more like the communist Cuba my family and I escaped in 1960 than the United States we have all known and loved,” Levy writes on her website. “I am running for Senate to lead the fight for freedom. Joe Biden isn’t on the ballot in November but his policies are. The way to beat back Biden is to beat Dick Blumenthal and I am the conservative candidate who can get it done.”

Lumaj, in the TV station’s Rocky Hill studio, continued to position himself as the only true conservative among the three candidates.

“I think that this midterm election is one of the most significant elections in the history of the United States, at least since (Ronald) Reagan, if not since (Abraham) Lincoln,” the Albania-born Lumaj said. “We have a confrontation in our nation, which is between two irreconcilable entities. I grew up in a country where I have seen state-ism. I’ve seen socialism. I know what that evil ideology can do to people and nations, and whether we like it or not, socialism is here and we had better defeat it.”

Pressed by reporters on the panel on the difference between federally funded services for people and the totalitarian dictatorship he escaped as a young man, Lumaj, who received more than 489,000 votes during his unsuccessful run for secretary of the state in 2014, said democracy and socialism are two different things.

“When the government becomes a part of every aspect of your life, which it has become in our nation, that should concern all of us,” Lumaj said. “You look at the currency depreciation, what is happening with the Federal Reserve, you and I are being prevented from creating wealth and equity right now, which is a God-given right.”

Lumaj was recently heckled by supporters of Levy, who charged that he is working with Klarides’ team to deny Levy the nomination.

After the trio’s only debate last month in New Haven, Lumaj noted that Levy’s position on abortion changed from pro-choice to pro-life, which Levy described as an evolution. “I wouldn’t call it flip-flopping,” Levy told reporters after the 45-minute debate. “I would call it learning from life. My heart changed, and isn’t that what we want from all Americans?”

A former critic of Donald Trump, Levy then spoke glowingly of the former president. “Look at the policy when President Trump was in office,” she said. “Our economy was strong. Everybody who wanted a job had a job. Highest employment for Blacks, Hispanics, women, young people. We were energy independent. In fact, we were a net exporter. Where would you rather be living? In America before 2020, or America since?”

But in two recent polls, Blumenthal — at this point — holds double-digit leads over any Republican challenger.

Ben Proto, a Stratford lawyer who is the state Republican chairman, said the eventual candidate to challenge Blumenthal’s attempt at a third six-year term is in the hands of his party’s voters.

“Republicans have a tremendous opportunity in November to change not only the face of the political landscape but the majority in the U.S. Senate,” Proto said in a phone interview. “I urge all Republicans to come out. Let your voice be heard on who should be the candidates to run against Dick Blumenthal and (4th District U.S. Rep.) Jim Himes.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT