Republican candidates for the nomination for U.S. Senate, Peter Lumaj, Themis Klarides and Leora Levy, at a WTNH debate on July 26, 2022. Anthony Quinn/WTNH

Connecticut’s three Republican candidates for U.S. Senate clashed Tuesday over Donald J. Trump, abortion and the question of electability: Is Sen. Richard Blumenthal more vulnerable to a social moderate or a conservative Trump loyalist?

Themis Klarides, the former state House Republican leader, rarely strayed from a central argument: Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj might be more conservative, but neither is electable in a state that last elected a Republican senator in 1982.

Themis Klarides Anthony Quinn/WTNH

“I have the best record to win an election in Connecticut, and that’s the goal here,” said Klarides, a former 11-term state lawmaker who won the endorsement of the Republican State Convention with nearly 57% of the vote.

Klarides and Levy, a Republican National Committee member who unsuccessfully ran for state Senate, largely ignored Lumaj, a businessman and immigration lawyer seeking statewide office for the fourth time.

Lumaj tried to insert himself, claiming to be the only true conservative. “I’m not afraid to be a Republican,” he said.

But the two women repeatedly referred to each other as “my opponent,” always in the singular. Both claimed to be “common-sense Republicans” with crossover appeal to unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in Connecticut.

“They should support me because I am a principled, common-sense conservative Republican. I am not a career politician. I am a career American,” Levy said. “The issues that are driving this election are the economy, the invasion at the border, the rise in crime, the indoctrination of our children with critical race theory.”

Leora Levy Anthony Quinn/WTNH

But Klarides and Lumaj each challenged her principles and consistency, noting she had been a supporter of abortion and opponent of Trump before switching positions and had contributed to Sen. Chris Dodd in 1992 and Blumenthal’s campaign for attorney general in 1998.

“I never donated to Blumenthal. That is a lie. That is a complete lie. I mean, maybe you’re talking about my husband,” Levy said. The $100 contribution was listed in records as from the Levys as as couple.

Levy then turned on Klarides with a reference to her husband, a senior executive at Eversource.

“While I’m not going to talk about it, I don’t blame you for rate hikes at Eversource,” Levy said.

Klarides ignored the gibe.

Levy complained Klarides and Lumaj were “colluding.” After the debate, she acknowledged contributing $1,000 to Dodd at the request of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. But the $100 contribution to Blumenthal was her husband’s idea, she said.

Their 45-minute debate in the studio of WTNH in New Haven was the first and last before the primary on Aug. 9. It was broadcast live on WCTX-TV, the sister station of WTNH, and streamed on WTNH.com and the station’s Facebook page.

Peter Lumaj Anthony Quinn/WTNH

Questions were posed by Dennis House and Jodi Latina of WTNH. They often were treated by the candidates as invitations to riff on practiced themes, not state a position on the issue at hand.

There were exceptions.

Klarides, a supporter of abortion rights who says she did not vote for Trump in 2020, said she would vote to codify reproductive rights in federal law. Levy and Lumaj said they would not.

In a yes-or-no lightning round near the conclusion, all three candidates used more than one word to answer: Would they support a Trump campaign for president in 2024? 

“I voted for him twice. I didn’t change my position and I did because I liked his policies,” Lumaj said.

House interrupted, “Yes or no?”

The final answer was affirmative.

“I would have to see who else was running on both sides,” Klarides said.

“I’ve always supported the Republican nominee, unlike my opponent,” Levy said.

All three said they opposed the forgiveness of college loans — debts must be honored.

Levy and Lumaj, both immigrants, opposed giving permanent legal status to the 800,000 young adults living in a legal limbo for a decade under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Klarides, who did not state a position during the debate, hedged afterward.

“I think it’s something we have to consider,” Klarides said. “I would support a conversation about it.”

Klarides, who voted for Connecticut’s comprehensive gun safety law passed in response to the Sandy Hook School shooting, was alone among the trio in saying she would have voted for the bipartisan gun law recently passed by Congress in response to the Uvalde, Texas shooting.

Lumaj did not answer how he would vote until pressed by House.

“Would you have voted for the gun control bill?”

“Not the entire bill,” Lumaj replied.

Levy and Lumaj said they would support arming teachers, if trained. Klarides said she favored armed police in the schools.

All three described themselves as supporters of the Second Amendment and gun enthusiasts.

“We shoot as a family,” Levy said. “We own guns.”

Klarides and Lumaj said they each have Connecticut carry permits.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

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.