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May 14, 2024

CT GOP fails to avoid primary in U.S. Senate race

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Gerry Smith accepted the Republican endorsement for U.S. Senate in a largely empty auditorium.

Republicans haven’t flipped a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut since the midterm election of 1970, when Lowell P. Weicker Jr. unseated a wounded Democratic incumbent, Thomas J. Dodd, in a three-way race dominated by Dodd’s censure and the war in Vietnam.

The path to the Senate arguably has only gotten steeper. But that did not dissuade the GOP from a four-way convention battle won Monday night by a small-town first selectman, Gerry Smith, 62, of Beacon Falls — nor will it stop a primary promised by the runner up, Matthew Corey, 60, of Manchester.

The winner of the Aug. 13 primary will face Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat seeking his third term with the advantages of running in blue state, backed by a $9 million campaign account and the near certainty his GOP challenger will struggle to raise more than a few hundred thousand dollars.

“A primary doesn’t help anybody but Sen. Murphy, because it’s tough to raise money, and it’s tough to start the fight in August,” Smith said in a 90-second acceptance speech to a rapidly emptying auditorium at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

Most of the delegates already were on the way home when his win was formalized, a step delayed by the credentials committee meeting to resolve an inconsistency in the numbers of votes cast and the number of delegates originally deemed eligible.

Smith won with 68% of the vote, but Corey easily qualified for a primary after a late entry in the race with 29% — nearly double the 15% threshold necessary. Robert Krawiecki of Bristol was third with 1.5%, and John Flynn of Norwalk had less than 1%.

Corey said he is committed to a primary.

Republicans had hoped to avoid a statewide primary, fearing a distraction to a competitive 5th Congressional District race that offers the GOP its best chance at regaining a foothold in Washington and perhaps giving the party a bit of momentum going into the 2026 gubernatorial cycle.

Few delegates were talking seriously about unseating Murphy in 2024. The GOP last won a U.S. Senate election in 1982, when Weicker won his third and last term. The high-water mark came when Linda McMahon got 43% of the vote in each of her two races for open seats against Richard Blumenthal in 2010 and Murphy in 2012, spending $50 million each time.

“This is a tall order this year. There’s no secret about that. Everybody at this convention today knows and understands that — tall order,” said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, a potential 2026 gubernatorial candidate who hosted a pre-convention reception. “However, I think setting this is setting the stage for the future.”

In the 5th Congressional District, Republican George Logan is challenging U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Democrat who narrowly won her third term two years ago, edging Logan, 50.4% to 49.6%.

Corey, who has previously run and lost races for state Senate, Congress and U.S. Senate, insisted he would be an asset, not a distraction, to the party’s hopes for a Logan win.

In nominating Corey, Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said he would be a better fit on a ticket led by former President Donald J. Trump.

“The head of our ticket is going to be Donald Trump,” Dubitsky said, a remark that prompted cheers. He urged delegates to “nominate somebody who can ride that Trump train. Whether you like Trump or not, that’s where we are.”

In his brief acceptance speech, Smith said nothing about Biden or Trump. He thanked delegates for their support, while bemoaning his inability to avoid a primary.

“Unfortunately, I can’t take the race to Mr. Murphy — what I wanted to do tomorrow,” Smith said.

Trump lost Connecticut to Biden by 20 percentage points in 2020, but Corey said Biden is weakened by Democratic dissension over Israel’s war on Gaza after the terrorist attack by Hamas.

He faulted Biden and Murphy for their unflinching support of Ukraine against Russia, while expressing reservations over Israeli tactics that have produced thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza.

 “I don’t understand why it’s there’s an unlimited amount of money going over to Ukraine, and nobody’s going over there talking about a peaceful solution like President Trump is,” Corey said. 

He promised to aggressively attack Murphy, forcing him to spend some of his war chest on the Connecticut Senate race, not to help Hayes or other Democrats.

“Sen. Murphy is sitting on $9 million. He was just out of state helping a state Senate race in Maryland. So when he comes back here, Jahana Hayes is his project. That was his seat. He’s going to defend that with all the money he has,” Corey said.

Murphy had recruited Hayes in 2018 to seek his old House seat.

Exactly how Corey will entice Murphy to spend heavily on his own reelection was unclear. Six years ago, when Murphy won his second term, the GOP nominee won only 39.4% of the vote and spent a modest $173,092.

The nominee then was Matthew Corey.

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