An exultant Leora Levy on a congratulatory call from Donald J. Trump. MARK MIRKO / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

The consequences of Donald J. Trump’s candidate winning the Connecticut Republican primary for U.S. Senate were evident Wednesday in the celebration of Democrats and the muted and uncertain response by Republicans.

In a conference call with reporters, the GOP state chairman Ben Proto refused to acknowledge concerns of Republican office holders that Leora Levy’s upset win guarantees Trump will remain an unwelcome presence through November.

The day after Republican voters heeded Trump’s call to nominate Levy and reject their party’s convention-endorsed candidate, Proto’s response to questions about Trump’s influence on the GOP’s identity was to ignore them, repeatedly.

Proto declined to acknowledge even the slightest complication of a win that puts Levy on the same ticket with a gubernatorial nominee, Bob Stefanowski, who has labored to avoid any discussion of the former president.

“I understand you don’t like my answer, but it’s the answer,” Proto said.

In endorsing Levy, the former president told rank-and-file voters that the choice of party leaders and activists, former House GOP leader Themis Klarides, was a dreaded RINO, a “Republican in name only.”

Stefanowski made no publicly announced appearances Wednesday, instead issuing a bland statement of congratulations to the primary winners without naming one. His campaign did not respond to a call for comment.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz staged a morning press conference in downtown Hartford to name-check the newly completed Democratic slate and confront the role of Trump in the Connecticut Republican Party.

“My Republican opponents would like to say that Donald Trump is not on the ballot this November, but I think somebody forgot to tell Donald Trump that,” Lamont said. “He is front and center on the ballot. I think you heard that from Leora Levy last night when she thanked Donald Trump for getting her over the finish line and said, ‘I won’t let you down.’”

Gov. Ned Lamont stopped to talk with students in an entrepreneurial program before addressing reporters about the election. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Blumenthal greeted Levy’s win with a fundraising appeal that began, “It’s official: I’m up against a radical GOP opponent in the general election.”

Levy responded with her own fundraising pitch: “Dick just wants to distract you. Dick Blumenthal has been in elected office for nearly forty years. He has played a part in creating virtually every challenge our country faces today, and has been a rubber stamp for Joe Biden’s failed policies as President.”

Stefanowski has tried not to be drawn into protracted discussions about abortion after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, dismissing its impact in a state that has codified the tenets of Roe in a state law he promises not to upend. 

In a new ad, Stefanowski pronounces himself and Lamont as “pro-choice,” then urges voters to examine their differences on pocketbook issues. Levy is opposed to abortion other than in cases of rape or when the patient’s life is endangered.

Stefanowski gave nothing to the campaign of Klarides, a supporter of abortion rights who has publicly said she did not vote for Trump’s reelection, while making the maximum contributions allowed by law to Levy’s campaign.

He said the contributions were the result of Levy making a request that Klarides did not. Levy also acted as a fundraiser for Stefanowski’s campaign for governor in 2018.

Lamont said the contributions make Levy his choice, just as she is Trump’s.

He held up three tightly bunched fingers and said, “Donald Trump and Bob Stefanowski and Leora Levy are like this.”

The assertion is one that Stefanowski cannot rebut without insulting Levy, Trump or their supporters. It was the same dilemma Proto faced on a midafternoon press call organized by the Republican National Committee.

The chairman instead insisted the election would be about the performances of President Joe Biden and Lamont on the national and state economies, not Trump or abortion. He pronounced himself “just absolutely thrilled with the caliber of our candidates who ran yesterday, whether they won or lost.”

Proto said the Republicans have a winning argument to make about “the economy, inflation, parental rights, local control, crime and public safety. Those are the issues that the voters are concerned about. Those are the issues that voters want to talk about.”

He shook off the first question about whether the party is the party of Trump, now that 60% of the voters in the primary supported one of the two Trump loyalists, Levy with 51% and Peter Lumaj with 9%.

“I think that’s the wrong question. I think the right question is, How is Joe Biden going to affect the ticket in November?” Proto said. “He’s the sitting president. He’s the one who’s making horrible decisions. He’s the one who has driven us to a 9-plus-percent inflation rate, taking us into a recession.”

Democrats say they are heartened by Biden’s recent victories in Congress, most notably the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act, and recent signs of inflation waning and the job market increasing.

Lamont was asked if he would like Biden to campaign for him, as he did four years ago.

“Yeah, if it’s a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, I’m gonna be with Joe Biden every day,” Lamont said. “If he wants to come up and talk about the infrastructure bill that’s going to transform a lot of our 100 year old rail …. bridges, please come on up.”

The governor said Democrats also would welcome a conversation about the prescription-drug reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act expected to win final passage by week’s end.

But Lamont left no question the Democrats would continue to make the case that the Republican Party in Connecticut no longer is the home of establishment figures like Prescott Bush Sr., a U.S. senator who was the father of and grandfather of two presidents.

“Prescott Bush, he was a pro-choice, fiscally conservative Republican. His son and his grandson, you know, talked about compassionate conservatism. There’s nothing compassionate about this next generation of Republicans who are taking over the Republican Party, even in Connecticut,” Lamont said. “I was shocked. I didn’t think it was going to happen here in Connecticut.”

Avatar photo

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.