Themis Klarides Credit: Anthony Quinn/WTNH

Themis Klarides embraced her moderate political leanings as a general election strength during a Tuesday night debate of Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls, which saw opponents Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj compete for the most conservative positions on abortion and gun control.

The candidates clashed during a quick but heated debate, moderated by WTNH personalities Jodi Latina and Dennis House at the network’s studios in New Haven. All three candidates will be on the ballot during an Aug. 9 primary for the Republican nomination to run against U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. 

Klarides, the former leader of the House minority Republican caucus, won the endorsement of party delegates during their convention in May. However, both Levy, a Republican donor and fundraiser, and Lumaj, a lawyer who has unsuccessfully run for statewide office several times, won enough support to compete. 

Rather than retreat from positions that were likely to the left of many Republican primary voters, Klarides reasserted her support of legal abortions and endorsed the gun policy law recently passed by Congress. She touted 11 election victories in a Democratic-leaning House district and framed herself as a voice of fiscal restraint during her time in office.

“That’s important because Connecticut is a Democrat-leaning state,” Klarides said. “I have criss-crossed this state more times than I can count and I have talked to people all over this state and I know I am a strong, common sense, Connecticut Republican and that’s how you win an election.”

Levy and Lumaj both indicated they would have voted against the recent gun control bill and said they would oppose an attempt by Congress to make abortions legal in all states in response to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

Although their positions were often similar, the two more conservative candidates took markedly different approaches during the debate. Levy spent much of the 45 minutes attacking Klarides while Lumaj more often criticized Levy.

Leora Levy Credit: Anthony Quinn/WTNH

“There is a contrast here,” Levy said, “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 party, are more like Senator Blumenthal’s.”

Throughout the debate, Levy boasted membership in the NRA and an endorsement by the abortion-opposed Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America PAC.

Lumaj, meanwhile, said he had always been opposed to abortion and believed the Supreme Court “got it right” when it overturned the nationwide policy. Though he disagreed with her, he said he respected Klarides’ consistency. Levy, not so much. 

“What bothers me about Leora is this: in 2012, when she spoke at the National Republican Convention on behalf of Mitt Romney, she was pro-abortion. 2016, she wrote an article against Donald Trump. She is pro-Trump now,” Lumaj said. “Then she donated to Blumenthal, now she wants to defeat Blumenthal. The voters for the primary have a clear choice: center-left Themis Klarides or a true, unwavering conservative, which is Peter Lumaj.”

Peter Lumaj Credit: Anthony Quinn/WTNH

Levy denied the allegation that she had ever donated to Blumenthal. Instead she claimed her husband had made the donation years ago and suggested the decision had caused an argument.

According to campaign finance records on OpenSecrets.org, Leora Levy gave $100 to Blumenthal, but the site did not include the date of the donation. Steven Levy did give $500 to Blumenthal in 2010 during his first run for U.S. Senate against Linda McMahon.

When Klarides repeated the claim, Levy took aim at Klarides’ husband, Eversource executive Greg Butler. 

“I don’t blame you for the rate hikes at Eversource,” Levy said. “What your husband does is what your husband does.”

Former President Donald Trump came up more than once during the debate. The candidates were asked whether they would support Trump if he ran for office again in 2024. Levy said she would support Trump, or whoever was the Republican nominee. Lumaj said he would support Trump but qualified the statement as based on the former president’s policies. Klarides declined to say, contending the answer would depend on who else was in the race. 

On several fronts, all three candidates were unified in their message. Chief among them was their contention that President Joe Biden’s policies had damaged the American economy and that Blumenthal had been complicit.

Ultimately, who faces Blumenthal in November will be up to some of the roughly 453,000 who are eligible to cast votes in next month’s primary.