Wills Pike, the master of ceremonies at the Montville Republican Town Committee barbecue, and Leora Levy, winner of the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, listen as Donald Trump speaks on Levy's phone. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Donald J. Trump barged into the Connecticut Republican primary Thursday night by endorsing Leora Levy for U.S. Senate in a phone call to an audience in Montville that included Levy’s two rivals, Themis Klarides and Peter Lumaj.

“I’m giving tonight my complete and total endorsement to Leora Levy, and she’s going to go out and win this primary,” Trump said, his voice coming from Levy’s phone, amplified over a P.A. system.

Levy and Lumaj are conservative Trump loyalists challenging Klarides, the convention-endorsed candidate and former state House Republican leader who has publicly acknowledged not voting for Trump in 2020.

The endorsement comes just four days before Republicans go to the polls to nominate an opponent to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a two-term Democrat who was a favorite target of Trump on Twitter before the president was banned from the platform.

Unclear was whether Levy’s campaign has the time or resources to fully exploit the endorsement in the waning days of a mid-summer primary that has showed little sign of engaging the interest of Republican voters.

“It will help me tremendously,” Levy said. “I am so honored, honored and humbled.”

Klarides and Lumaj minimized its value. While the phone call was unexpected, Trump siding with Levy was not, Klarides said.

“She’s been begging him for his endorsement since the winter,” Klarides said. “So, it’s not really a surprise. It doesn’t change anything.”

Levy supported Jeb Bush for president in 2016. In a Greenwich Time opinion piece, she denounced Trump: “He is vulgar, ill-mannered and disparages those whom he cannot intimidate.” 

But she rallied to his cause after he clinched the nomination, raising funds for the campaign. He rewarded her with a nomination as ambassador, but the Senate never acted on her confirmation.

Trump has had a mixed record of picking winners in primaries in 2022.

Two prominent Georgians who defied his demands to throw out votes for Joe Biden, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of the State Brad Raffensperger, defeated Trump loyalists. Trump’s picks fared better in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Word that Trump was on the phone wanting a word with the Republican town committee of Montville, a southeastern Connecticut town of 18,000, electrified the crowd of more than 100 at local party’s annual steak-and-corn fundraiser.

They applauded when Trump’s voice crackled over the P.A. in a picnic pavilion on the grounds of the Polish club in Montville, a town won by him in 2016, but not in 2020.

The local town committee has endorsed Klarides, as has the one in neighboring Waterford.

Levy said later the phone call came without notice from a West Palm Beach, Fla., phone number she did not recognize and nearly did not answer.

“President Trump is full of surprises,” Levy said, grinning broadly.

The call came after the three candidates for U.S. Senate and a dozen others made brief speeches. Levy abruptly left the pavilion and paced the parking lot, talking on her phone. It was Trump.

“He was asking me about the race,” Levy said. “He was asking me about the different candidates. He wanted to know the issues.”

Levy returned to the pavilion, Trump still on the line. She interrupted Wills Pike, the master of ceremonies, surprising him with news that the former president wanted to address the gathering.

“I’m calling to say hello to Leora, who I’ve known for a long time,” Trump said. “She’s an outstanding person.”

Trump quickly endorsed her. Then he turned on Blumenthal, whom he called “Da Nang Dick,” an effort to revive a controversy from 2010 over revelations that the Democrat had on occasion had falsely referred to military service in Vietnam. He was a Marine Reservist during Vietnam, but never left the states.

“I call him Da Nang, because he never went to Vietnam. And he said he went there and was a great war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a total liar. He’s a sleaze bag.”

Blumenthal apologized and called the statements inadvertent and rare. In his official bio and in numerous speeches he correctly described his Vietnam Era service as a stateside Marine Reservist. In at least one recorded speech, Blumenthal accurately and inaccurately referred to his military record.

There is no record of Blumenthal fabricating stories of combat or heroism, as Trump has repeatedly and falsely asserted.

Trump followed his chatty, upbeat telephone call with a withering statement attacking Klarides for the support she enjoys from two of the nation’s most popular governors, Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, as well as former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

All three are Trump critics, denounced by him as “3 of the worst RINOs in the country,” the shorthand epithet for Republicans in name only. Baker and Hogan, moderates who succeeded in Democratic states, had long distanced themselves from Trump. Once an ally, Christie blamed Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump in his statement described Klarides, who has the support of two police unions, as “Weak on Crime, Weak on our Military and Vets, and will not be protecting our under siege Second Amendment.”

Klarides voted for the comprehensive gun control law Connecticut adopted after the Sandy Hook School shooting. Trump gave no rationale for the accusation she is weak on the military or veterans.

In the written statement, Trump also hit Blumenthal again over Vietnam, lying about the senator’s falsehoods.

“Blumenthal stated, over and over again, that he had watched men die by his side as he fought in battle, talked and bragged about it incessantly, and yet it was a total hoax and ‘con job,’ ” Trump said.

Blumenthal never made such statements. With the support of veterans groups, Blumenthal was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2016.

Pike, the master of ceremonies, celebrated his town committee getting a call from a president. “I want to see an RTC beat that puppy!” he exulted from the stage. “I want to see somebody beat that.”

But he made clear later that his excitement over the phone call does not mean he sees a huge boost to Levy.

“I don’t think it changes anything,” Pike said. “I think it’s remarkable that the 45th president wanted to speak to a Montville event. I don’t think it changes the dynamics of the race. I think Themis is solid, and I think she represents Connecticut.”

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, Themis Klarides, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, and Mary Fay, the Republican candidate for state comptroller, look on as Donald Trump endorses Klarides’ rival Leora Levy for the nomination at a GOP event in Montville. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Trump teased the crowd about his potential further involvement in Connecticut politics, perhaps later in the year.

“I’ll get up there and have a big rally or something,” Trump said.

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.