Themis Klarides in the House in 2020. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

By opting to run for U.S. Senate instead of governor, former state House Republican leader Themis Klarides has given Connecticut’s struggling GOP a chance to set the top of its 2022 ticket without a protracted fight.

Klarides, 56, announced her decision in an appearance taped Friday and aired Sunday morning on News8 WTNH’s “This Week in CT,” ending weeks of public speculation and private pressure to make the switch.

Her decision leaves Bob Stefanowski, the 2018 nominee for governor, a chance to become the first Republican to win the gubernatorial nomination without a primary since Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2006.

“It clearly clarifies the gubernatorial situation on our side,” said Ben Proto, the Republican state chair. “Bob is clearly the front runner and odds-on favorite to be the nominee.”

In switching races, Klarides promises to enliven what was expected to be an uneventful contest for U.S. Senate. If nominated, she would face Democrat Richard Blumenthal, 75, a fixture in statewide politics for more than three decades.

Klarides said she was running to hold Blumenthal accountable and give voters a choice, rather than watch the GOP cede a third term to the Democrat, who previously was the state attorney general for 20 years.

“Is he just going to get a pass when he needs to explain to people why he votes almost 100% of the time with the Democrats in Washington? He has to explain what he’s doing for Connecticut,” Klarides said. “And I think partisanship is over. People are sick of it.”

Connecticut Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate race since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1982 or a U.S. House contest since Chris Shays in 2006. Both were liberals left behind by the GOP’s rightward shift.

Democrats have solid majorities in the General Assembly and hold every statewide office, though Republicans are hoping dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden gives the GOP a lift in the midterm election.

Klarides is a fiscal conservative with a moderate voting record on some non-fiscal issues, most notably supporting the gun control measure adopted after Sandy Hook, abortion rights and gay rights.

At the Republican National Convention in 2012, Klarides urged the GOP to consider endorsing civil unions for same-sex couples, a suggestion that won little support. 

Klarides attended the 2016 convention, a member of a delegation wholly committed to Donald J. Trump, the winner of the Connecticut primary. His election was disastrous for the GOP in Connecticut. 

Democrats energized by Trump erased eight years of steady Republican gains in the General Assembly in 2018, ending Klarides’ hope of becoming the first Republican speaker of the Connecticut House since the 1985-86 term.

Klarides did not seek re-election in 2020 to the 114th House District of Derby, Orange and Woodbridge. She was first elected in 1998 and spent her final six years as the leader of the House GOP minority.

Klarides announced her decision to run for U.S. Senate during a taped interview with Dennis House. WTNH

She sidestepped a question posed by WTNH anchor Dennis House about how she would deal with Trump in 2022.

“My focus is completely Connecticut and running for office,” Klarides said. “My job is to make sure I get to every voter and discuss what I believe in, and what I think a vision for Connecticut is, what I think a vision for this country is.”

A year ago, Klarides quickly distanced herself from Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. She said Trump had the right to pursue all legal avenues contesting the election, but all failed.

Klarides faces competition for the nomination from three conservatives, including Peter Lumaj, the Republican nominee for secretary of the state in 2014 and a gubernatorial candidate who failed to qualify for the primary in 2018. The others are John Flynn and Robert Hyde.

Lumaj made clear he has no intention to step aside, offering a sarcastic welcome to “the fight to end Dick Blumenthal’s career in Washington.”

“But I also know that I am the conservative fighter that Connecticut Republicans need to take this fight on,” Lumaj said.

Klarides registered as a candidate for governor in May, a step that allowed her to spend but not raise money. She spent $400,000, primarily on polling and consultants.

Her marriage in 2020 to Greg Butler, the executive vice president and general counsel of Eversource, a state-regulated utility and its primary provider of electricity in Connecticut, would have been an issue had she continued in the race for governor.

The governor appoints the members of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, and Stefanowski made clear he would make Eversource an issue if Klarides continued as a candidate for governor.

She offered no immediate endorsement of Stefanowski, who is seeking a rematch with Gov. Ned Lamont.

“If Bob is the nominee, I will certainly support whoever the Republican nominee is,” Klarides said. “And I think we certainly have a good chance to win.”

Susan Patricelli Regan, a political newcomer, also is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination but has demonstrated no base of support or ability to compete with Stefanowski, who recently made a $1 million television buy to kick off his campaign. 

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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.