HARTFORD — Capitalizing on an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, conservative Greenwich fundraiser Leora Levy roared to a stunning victory Tuesday night against moderate Themis Klarides in a race that surprised Connecticut on primary day.
After Klarides won the party’s convention endorsement with nearly 60% of the vote, many Republicans believed that she would handily win the primary as Levy and immigration attorney Peter Lumaj of Fairfield would split the conservative vote.
But Levy stunned many political observers by running a highly spirited campaign, raising more money than her rivals and constantly blasting Klarides in negative television commercials that were shown repeatedly on multiple channels.
As soon as the polls closed at 8 p.m., the trend started in Levy’s direction as she defeated Klarides in numerous small towns that report early. The unofficial results showed Levy winning in Andover, Ashford, Burlington, Canton, Cromwell, Chester, Clinton, Colebrook, Columbia, Danbury, and Farmington, among others.
“We’re making history here,’' Levy said in her victory speech at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Old Greenwich. “It’s really exciting. This is just chapter one. We’ve got the longer chapter ahead. ... This has been an amazing experience for me. ... My sister and I escaped communist Cuba. ... This is our story, and our journey was tragedy and sacrifice. But it was hope at the end. And we found hope here in America. My American Dream is I am a candidate here for the U.S. Senate.’'
When Levy thanked both Klarides and Lumaj, a supporter in the large crowd booed.
“No, please, no booing,’' Levy responded. “We need to unify. They each ran aggressive campaigns. We agreed on some issues, but I know they love our country, too.’'
She added, “I would like to thank President Trump. Thank you, President Trump, for your strong, clear, unequivocal endorsement. ... I will not let you down. Thank you for having my back.’'
Regarding Monday’s high-profile search by FBI agents for classified documents at Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Levy said, “That is unAmerican. That is what they do in Cuba, in China, in dictatorships.’'
Levy then turned her attention to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic powerhouse who has never lost an election in his 37-year career. Blumenthal has about $8 million in cash on hand for the November election.
“Here in Connecticut, Dick Blumenthal is Joe Biden,’' Levy said. “Dick Blumenthal supported defunding the police.’'
As she headed to an overall total of about 40%, Klarides won in Beacon Falls, Bridgewater, Cornwall, Deep River, and Simsbury, among others. Despite moving recently to Madison, Klarides needed a blowout victory in her former hometown of Derby. She won by 56% to 36% with Lumaj carrying 7%.
During her brief concession speech at about 10:45 p.m. in Middletown, Klarides thanked Larraine Rubacha, a key supporter who made 12,000 telephone calls by herself to get out the vote.
“I have spent the last 25 years trying to make Connecticut a better place,’' said Klarides, repeating her moniker of herself as “that loud-mouthed Greek girl.’'
Rubacha was stunned after the defeat.
“I’m heartbroken,” she said. “I never saw this coming, it’s shocking. ... The Trump factor must have played a large role, but who saw this coming in Connecticut? Not me and not anyone I know.”
After seeing Klarides win the endorsements of delegates at the convention in May at Foxwoods Resort Casino, supporters were stunned by her defeat.
“Obviously, this isn’t the way we wanted this to play out,” said Brian Werstler, the campaign manager. “I’m proud of the work we did. We stood up for people in Connecticut.”
“I’m feeling very bummed,” said Zachary Foti, a volunteer and student entering his first year in Quinnipiac’s political science program. “I’m grateful for the opportunity I had. I just am so bummed right now.”
Trump as game changer
The game changer in the primary came when Levy won the endorsement Thursday of Trump, who retains major support among Republicans, particularly hard-core primary voters.
Trump held a tele-rally for Levy on Monday night, and the Levy campaign said that 32,679 people listened to the call — a huge number at a time when 450,000 Republicans were eligible to vote Tuesday. Trump arranged the rally and promoted the call to his supporters through social media, and the Levy campaign said that 98% of the callers had been from Connecticut.
Both Klarides and Lumaj downplayed the endorsement from Trump, who is still seen as the most popular candidate in the Republican Party nationally even while no longer holding office.
Despite a call for unity by state party chairman Ben Proto, the candidates hammered each other relentlessly and did not focus their political fire on Blumenthal, a powerhouse Democrat who is already running television commercials on multiple channels.
“I’m the only candidate who has a chance to beat Dick Blumenthal,’' Klarides told The Courant in a recent interview. “We are never all going to agree on everything — ever. But we’re going to agree on way more things than what we disagree on. ... I would hope on August 10 that everybody is together.’'
Klarides’s supporters strongly maintained that a pro-gun, pro-Trump candidate could win in Alabama, but could not win in Connecticut.
On primary day, Republicans heard Trump’s voice in their homes on a robocall that was delivered after the voting had already begun. Trump’s call came in the afternoon as voters were urged to head to the polls.
“Leora will fight to stop inflation and the Biden administration’s war on American energy like nobody’s ever seen,’' Trump said on the call. “That may be the dumbest war of all. She’ll vote to secure our border and stop illegal immigration. She’ll defend free speech, our great Constitution and the Second Amendment. She will work to crack down on violent crime, support our police officers, and restore public safety. I hope you can all get out and vote for Leora Levy.’'
A narrator after Trump’s statement said the message, which lasted about one minute, was paid by the Connecticut Patriots PAC, an independent Super PAC that is supporting Levy.
Bristol resident Rae Rudzinksi, a Republican voting for Bob Stefanowski for governor in November, said Trump’s endorsement of Levy made her choose Levy over Klarides.
“When I learned Trump backed Levy, I knew I had to vote for her,’' Rudzinski said. “I don’t know a lot about the candidates, but Trump’s endorsement was huge for me because it helps me know what she stands for. That was huge for me.”
She added, “The economy is the biggest issue. I like to bake, and going to the grocery everything is more expensive. Just eggs and milk have gone up. It’s getting too expensive.”
Levy is also supported by Simsbury landscaper Robert Hyde, a major Trump supporter who attended the state party convention but did not qualify for the primary this year after receiving less than 1% of the delegates in the final tally. Instead, he says he is running in 2024 against U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Hartford.
“This is the year for conservatives to run,’' Hyde said in a message. “The national political environment has not been this favorable since 1994.’'
Lumaj said on live television that Trump’s endorsement was a key factor.
“This is a huge victory for President Trump in our state,’' Lumaj said. “The target remains Blumenthal and the failed liberal policies. ... I wouldn’t do anything differently. ... Obviously, the endorsement by the President changed the political landscape in our state.’'
Three Democrats for state treasurer
The party’s convention-endorsed candidate, Erick A. Russell of New Haven, scored a major victory Tuesday night in a three-way race.
An attorney, Russell piled up endorsements across the state and pulled away in the race against Greenwich hedge fund manager Dita Bhargava and Karen Dubois-Walton, a Yale graduate who serves as New Haven’s public housing authority executive director and chairwoman of the state board of education.
In a rare open seat as incumbent treasurer Shawn Wooden did not seek reelection, the Democrats battled for the position that is often seen as the second most powerful in the state after the governor - for overseeing a pension fund that fluctuates and is now about $45 billion.
Bhargava ran a spirited campaign with two eye-catching commercials and a late endorsement from Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who remain highly popular among Democratic primary voters.
“Erick has the perfect combination of political chops, deep policy experience and grassroots support to make an effectual state executive,’' said Mayor Annise Parker, chief executive officer of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Voters are clearly eager to support his policy agenda to address racial and social wealth gaps and ensure all of Connecticut’s residents have a fair shot at the American Dream. His success tonight is also a strong rebuke to the wave of racism and bigotry sweeping our nation.’'
Secretary of the State for Democrats
With the retirement of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill after 12 years, more than 10 candidates stepped forward to fill the open seat as the state’s top elections official.
State Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk defeated New Haven health director Maritza Bond in a race that became increasingly bitter as Bond started running negative television commercials on a steady basis.
Thomas won the party’s convention endorsement in a five-person race and rolled up more than 125 endorsements that included Merrill and more than 40 state legislators. Bond relied on the support of a wide array of unions for door-knocking and phone-banking, including the state AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers Region 9 A, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, and others that she said are the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Secretary of the State for Republicans
The convention-endorsed candidate, Dominic Rapini, defeated state Rep. Terrie E. Wood of Darien, a legislator who has won seven elections and has the most experience at the state Capitol of any candidate running to be the top elections official.
A longtime sales executive for Apple and local football coach, Rapini notes that he has coached more than 1,000 young players in the Pop Warner program in New Haven County over the past three decades. He taped a video with former GOP party Chairwoman Sue Hatfield, a former athlete who was carrying a football in front of a scoreboard as she endorsed Rapini.
Rapini started the general election campaign right away late Tuesday night by saying, “Today’s systematic failures by the Secretary of the State’s office in the primary further proved we have real problems that need real solutions. Political insiders like Stephanie Thomas won’ fix these problems - she pretends that they don’t even exist. Plainly stated, she is a fraud denier.’'
Wood was endorsed by House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford, Bolton First Selectman Pam Sawyer, and Pauline Kezer, the last Republican who held the secretary of the state’s office in the early 1990s before losing a primary for governor against John G. Rowland in 1994. Democrats have dominated the constitutional office for decades, but Kezer broke the logjam as the only Republican winner over the past 60 years.
Rep. Trenee McGee, an African American freshman legislator who has served less than one year in Hartford, defeated Joe Miller, a 24-year-old abortion rights advocate, in a contest that focused on abortion. Miller said he decided to challenge McGee after she made an impassioned speech on the floor of the state House of Representatives against an abortion bill that was later signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont.
“I’m proud of it,” said McGee, noting she knocked on doors and talked to many West Haven residents. “I worked very hard. I’m a boots-on-the-ground person.”
McGee knocked on doors with fellow members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus during the campaign.
The top issues she heard from people were taxes and the economy. “One of the things I heard about is how can we restore transparency and integrity. People are still reeling from the precious representative,” she said, referring to Michael DiMassa, who was indicted in the theft of federal COVID-relief funds.
Miller conceded before the town’s absentee ballots were counted.
“It’s an unfortunate result for the women of West Haven and the women of Connecticut,” he said. “I’m going to take this message from the Democrats home with me tonight.”
Asked if he might run as an independent, Miller said, “I haven’t ruled anything out. We built a movement and gave people hope.”
Abortion, McGee said, has been “destructive to my community” in urban neighborhoods, and she wanted to “speak the fearless truth” about too many abortions in minority communities.
The intra-party clash was the most interesting legislative contest of the primary season, said state Republican chairman Ben Proto.
In the Simsbury race to fill the seat of outgoing state Rep. John Hampton, petitioning candidate Melissa Osborne defeated party-endorsed Eric Wellman by 34 votes, securing the Democratic nomination for the 16th District General Assembly seat with 1,086 votes to Wellman’s 1,052.
Osborne, an attorney and alternate zoning commissioner who previously served on the town’s Charter Revision Commission, said that she is confident that Simsbury Democrats will come together as she prepares to face off against Republican nominee Mike Paine this November.
“I know that the number one priority for Democrats has got to be making sure that we maintain a strong majority in the House to protect all of the rights and the core democratic values that we share,” Osborne said.
Hampton, a political powerhouse in Simsbury who served for nine years on the board of selectmen and 10 years in the state legislature, provided a key endorsement to Osborne that helped make the difference.
Wellman, Simsbury’s former first selectman and a current board of selectmen member, said that despite the loss, he is proud of what his campaign accomplished and wished Osborne the best.
“I told her that what she’s been given is a gift and a blessing,’' Wellman said. “There’s really no higher honor than, you know, serving, being a public servant, and representing your hometown at the state legislature.’'
An hour before the polls closed, Simsbury election officials reported a combined in-person and absentee voter turnout of about 31% for Democrats. About 19% of registered Republicans had also participated in the primary.
Democrats exiting the voting booths Tuesday said that preserving abortion access and maintaining a Democratic hold on the state government weighed heavy on their minds as they cast their ballot for either Wellman or Osborne.
Earlier today, Geoff Luxenberg, the majority caucus chair and deputy majority leader for the Connecticut House representing the 12th House District, campaigned for Osborne outside the polls.
“She is a brilliant attorney, a mom, a cancer survivor. She has been an outstanding Democrat, for Simsbury, and even beyond Simsbury, her entire adult life,” Luxenberg said. “She really impressed a lot of people. And I think that’s why you saw John Hampton, the person who’s vacating the seat, endorse her…And I think that says a lot about what a good job she’ll do. She’s also the strongest Democrat to beat the Republicans this fall.”
Courant staff writers Stephen Underwood, Alison Cross, and Pam McLoughlin contributed to this story.
Christopher Keating can be reached at email@example.com