When the Connecticut Republican Party endorsed former state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides for the U.S. Senate this spring, the social moderate was viewed by many past and present party leaders as the GOP's best chance in years to defeat veteran Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
But in the months since the state convention, Klarides, who supports both abortion and gay rights, and has voted for various gun control measures while serving in the state's General Assembly, has come under fire from the conservative wing of the party for her stances, including accusations she's not a true Republican.
More of that criticism was lodged Tuesday night, when Klarides appeared in the first GOP Senate debate with her two conservative challengers in the upcoming Aug. 9 primary. Leora Levy of Greenwich, the state’s Republican National Committeewoman, and attorney Peter Lumaj of Fairfield, who ran for governor in 2018, both oppose abortion rights and further restrictions on gun owners.
“There is a contrast here," Levy said, when comparing herself to Klarides. “And I’m running in a Republican primary, not a Democrat primary. And her views on abortion are more suited to running in a Democrat primary, are more like Senator Blumenthal’s.”
Lumaj, however, referred to himself as the only “unwavering conservative" among the three candidates, criticizing Levy for previously supporting abortion rights. He said Republicans in Connecticut have lost statewide races in the past because they nominated candidates who “were afraid to be a Republican.”
But Klarides stressed that a candidate with such conservative positions won't win in Connecticut, where the largest voting block is made up of unaffiliated voters, followed by Democrats and then Republicans. There's also strong support in the state for abortion rights, a key issue in this year's election after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
A recent Quinnipiac University Poll showed the vast majority of Connecticut voters think abortion should be legal in all cases.
“We all agree that Dick Blumenthal needs to go and we all also understand that I’m the best candidate to do that,” Klarides said. “I won 11 elections when my opponents have won no other elections. And I have the best record to win an election in Connecticut, and that’s the goal here.”
The verbal jabs in the GOP Senate primary election have come primarily from Levy, a first-time candidate whose campaign manager this month called Klarides “a Democrat in disguise" in a campaign memo. Besides noting her support for abortion rights and state gun control measures, he criticized her for acknowledging she didn't vote for former President Donald Trump in 2020.
“How can you trust an entrenched member of the Hartford Swamp when they do not even support the Republican candidate and our values? She will only bring her brand of insider politics to Washington, DC,” wrote Christopher Velazco. “Nothing will change.”
Levy loaned her campaign more than $1 million and is running a TV ad attacking Klarides that warns, “after 22 years in office, Themis Klarides isn't one of us.”
Klarides, in turn, has focused most of her attention on Blumenthal, who in May registered a 45% job approval rating, his lowest in a Quinnipiac Poll since taking office in 2011. She has concentrated heavily on economic issues, saying in a recent tweet that affordability and inflation are the top issues in Connecticut and “Biden and Blumenthal just don't get it,” lumping the senator with President Joe Biden.