HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has $7.5 million in campaign cash and enviable name recognition after decades in public office, but Republicans in this Democratic-leaning state still see an opportunity to win a U.S. Senate seat after a roughly 30-year drought.
Top state Republicans are touting Themis Klarides, the former GOP leader in the state House of Representatives, as a formidable challenger with the best chance of capitalizing on the strong national headwinds facing Democrats this election year.
State Democrats remain confident Blumenthal, 76, will win a third six-year term. But if Klarides receives her party's endorsement in May, it will mark the first time Blumenthal has faced a challenge from such a well-known state politician. Klarides served more than two decades in the General Assembly, representing Derby, Orange and Woodbridge, and was the first woman to lead the House Republican caucus before retiring in 2021.
The 56-year-old lawyer, former model and bodybuilder who worked as a “ring girl” for the WWE while studying for the bar exam, initially considered running for governor. She announced her pivot to the Senate race in January, saying she believes she can win over voters with her moderate stances on social issues, such as support for abortion and gay rights, and conservative views on fiscal issues.
“I’ve talked to a lot of unaffiliateds and a lot of Democrats that are really disenchanted with Sen. Blumenthal; disenchanted that he follows party line and he’s partisan in whatever he does,” she said. ”He has not put Connecticut first, and his time has come to retire."
Blumenthal has publicly avoided commenting on the race, telling The Associated Press — after a recent visit to Poland to learn about the Ukraine war — that he's focused on doing his job. He has co-sponsored bills to limit the purchase of Russian energy and seize luxury assets tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There will be plenty of time to talk about the campaign," he said.
However, in fundraising appeals, Blumenthal warns his supporters he's “up against radical Trump-loyalist opponents who want to flip this seat” and says his campaign needs help to ensure Democratic control of the Senate: “With everything from reproductive rights to voting rights to climate justice and more on the line, falling short is not an option.”
Klarides has been both critical and supportive of former President Donald Trump over the years, and said while she has heard from his supporters already, she expects to benefit more from voters' general frustration.
National Republicans have not officially weighed in on Connecticut's Senate race yet, considering there's still a potential primary. But at least two independent super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums of money, have been formed, signaling that outside groups are interested. One is backing Klarides and the other is supporting Leora Levy, a conservative Republican from Greenwich who is the state's Republican National Committeewoman and holds other party positions.
Other Republicans vying for the party's endorsement include Peter Lumaj, a conservative Republican and attorney from Fairfield who has previously run for statewide office; Robert Hyde of Canton, a 2019 congressional candidate who was asked to end that bid by top Republicans following vulgar tweets; John Flynn of Norwalk, a carpenter, painter and former state legislative candidate; and small business owner Nicholas Connors of New Canaan.
Bryan Cafferelli, a member of the Republican State Central Committee, is among those who have urged Republicans to “unify around Themis” and avoid a potentially damaging primary.
Ben Proto, the state's GOP chair, said President Joe Biden’s slumping approval ratings will boost all Republican candidates in Connecticut, even against a high vote-getter like Blumenthal. He likened the situation to the 1994 midterms, when the GOP took control of Congress and won the Connecticut governor’s race.
“There’s clearly a wave coming,” he said, tying Blumenthal to the Biden administration's policies on coronavirus mandates, rising inflation and high gas prices. Blumenthal has proposed suspending the federal gas tax.
Republicans are also likely to attack Blumenthal for attending a December event with ties to the Communist Party. He has said he was not aware of the affiliation.
Blumenthal’s last tight contest was in 2010, his first run for U.S. Senate. Republican Linda McMahon, the former professional wrestling executive, spent $50 million on the race. McMahon’s camp had boasted it was responsible for reporting in The New York Times revealing Blumenthal repeatedly told audiences he served in Vietnam, when he actually remained stateside with the Marine Reserve during the war. Blumenthal apologized, telling voters he “misspoke” and never intended to mislead anyone. While in office, Trump frequently called Blumenthal derogatory names referencing the issue.
In Connecticut, the GOP faces a challenge when it comes to the numbers. As of October 2021, there were fewer than 465,000 active registered Republicans compared to more than 825,00 active Democrats and 930,000 active unaffiliated voters. Meanwhile, Blumenthal's supporters say the former U.S. attorney, who began his political career in the General Assembly in 1984 and later served an unprecedented five terms as state attorney general, has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill.
Nancy DiNardo, chair of the state's Democratic Party, said she isn't worried at all about Blumenthal.
“The people of Connecticut know the job he has done and appreciate the work that he has done for Connecticut and its citizens,” she said. “He did a phenomenal job as attorney general, and he continues to do a phenomenal job as a U.S. senator."
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