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September 12, 2022

Leora Levy: Donald Trump ‘not on the ballot’ despite endorsement

LISA HAGEN / CT MIRROR Republican Leora Levy campaigns for U.S. Senate with Plymouth Mayor Joe Kilduff, center, at the Terryville Fair in Plymouth in August.

Fresh off her victory in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, Leora Levy roamed the busy fairgrounds in Terryville on a mild summer evening in late August, meeting with voters and celebrating a win even she didn’t expect to be that decisive.

The nominee spent two hours at the Terryville Lions Country Fair speaking with police officers, firefighters, vendors and locals whom she’s hoping to win over in November — some of them in a chaotic kitchen where cooks were flipping burgers and making fried dough.

As she met with fairgoers, the person who helped Levy solidify her win rarely came up in conversations. But former President Donald Trump was not completely absent.

Plymouth Mayor Joe Kilduff, who helped guide Levy around the grounds, was curious to hear how Levy went from a one-time Trump critic to an eager supporter who won his last-minute endorsement in the primary.

With the midterm elections two months away, Trump is still playing a significant role in GOP politics, and Connecticut is no exception. Democrats are again trying to use that to their advantage — especially in more traditionally blue states — while Republicans view the race as a referendum on the sitting president, Joe Biden, and his agenda.

Whether or not Trump ends up being a red flag for the party, Connecticut Republicans are hoping more hesitant voters can look past the potential 2024 presidential contender and still vote for the ticket as they look to unseat U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

“Regardless of your particular opinion of a certain candidate, what Connecticut has been doing the last generation hasn’t been working for a lot of folks,” said Kilduff, a Republican mayor who was elected in 2021.

When asked how the former president might factor into the general election and whether his support will hurt her with more moderate voters, Levy emphasized that Trump is “not on the ballot” — a possible indication that he might not get as involved in the campaign, at least in a direct way.

“I was honored to win his endorsement. He and I agree completely on policy, but I’m Leora Levy. … Trump is not on the ballot. Leora Levy is,” she said. “And if there’s any president’s name on the ballot, it’s Joe Biden, because of his failed policies.”

From critic to supporter

On the night of Florida’s presidential primary in 2016, Levy was visiting Palm Beach and going to dinner at Mar-a-Lago with a close friend. The two of them spotted Donald Trump, who was holding a yellow legal pad and presumably working on a speech about his victory that further solidified him as the leading GOP candidate.

Trump offered his condolences to her friend, who had lost her husband more than a year earlier, at a time when he was likely occupied with his primary win. Levy said she saw a much softer side to Trump, one she “wished he’d show more often.”

“I was supporting Sen. [Ted] Cruz because Jeb [Bush] had dropped out. But it was after that conversation, I really took a look at then-candidate Trump,” Levy said in an interview.

But it was not until a month or so later that Levy was fully on board. She attended a dinner held by the New York Republican Party, where both Trump and Cruz delivered remarks. She was similarly impressed as he spoke about the projects and financial assistance he had given “anonymously” over the years in New York City.

“When I heard him speak about it with such passion and just a depth of feeling I had not seen from him before, I realized this is someone who could be president,” Levy said. “I was already leaning toward him, but that was the moment I decided I would support him.”

Before her turnaround, Levy called Trump “vulgar” and “ill-mannered” in an op-ed she wrote a day before Bush dropped out of the race. After the former Florida governor’s exit, she supported Cruz before deciding on Trump. Levy noted that she does not always agree with Trump, including when he disparaged the late Sen. John McCain’s military service during the Vietnam War.

Now six years later, Trump returned the favor and endorsed Levy days before Connecticut’s GOP Senate primary last month. Before she won the official seal of approval, Levy — a political fundraiser and Republican National Committee committeewoman — had fashioned herself as the “America First” candidate. She was also nominated in 2019 by Trump to serve as U.S. ambassador to Chile, but the then-GOP controlled Senate never voted on her nomination.

But the prospect of a future Trump rally in the state is uncertain. When asked if she would like Trump to campaign in Connecticut before the Nov. 8 race, Levy said he “runs his own schedule.”

“That’s up to him,” she said. “I’m running my race.”

That might be music to some Connecticut Republicans’ ears, as leaders in the party still grapple with Trump’s tight grip on the party after voters rejected the convention-endorsed candidate and social moderate Themis Klarides. They dismissed questions about the influence he still holds over Republicans, while other candidates keep him at arm’s length.

While Levy scored a resounding victory with the help of Trump, the primary featured low turnout particularly because unaffiliated voters — the largest bloc in the state — are shut out of party primaries in Connecticut. November will be the first time those voters weigh in on the midterms, and they have historically gravitated away from the former president in past elections.

Trump’s connection to the state could also complicate other top races, including the rematch between Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski. The GOP nominee does not talk about Trump and hasn’t campaigned with Levy, though he donated to her campaign as well as to her former primary rival Peter Lumaj. Levy said she “look[s] forward” to campaigning with Stefanowski, but did not specify any exact plans.

An uphill fight in November

But a much bigger challenge lies ahead for Levy in trying to unseat Blumenthal, who has been a fixture in Connecticut politics for decades.

Connecticut has gone deep blue at the national level for years. The state’s congressional delegation is made up of all Democrats, and Republicans have not won a Senate seat since 1982, when Lowell Weicker won reelection.

Biden won the state by 20 percentage points over Trump in 2020. And Blumenthal, who has served in elected office since 1984, easily won his past two Senate races, even after his first opponent spent tens of millions of dollars of her own money against him.

Some recent polling found Blumenthal’s approval rating under 50%, though he still held a wide lead over all Republicans who were running for the nomination at the time, including Levy.

While Trump’s influence still looms large over the GOP, Levy is trying to focus on her own campaign and what she argues are damaging policies coming from a federal government fully controlled by Democrats in the White House and in Congress. She has criticized Blumenthal as a “career politician” who has helped his party pass trillions of dollars in spending, which she claims has contributed to inflation.

Campaigning in a friendly political terrain, Levy was warmly received by attendees at the Terryville fair, and many were enthusiastic about her campaign against Blumenthal, who goes to the fair annually and stopped by again on the last day.

Terryville, one of the many villages in the town of Plymouth, has held its fair for more than 70 years and is a hot spot for political candidates trying to get face time with voters especially in an election year. The area is a very red part of the state that Trump overwhelmingly carried two years ago. In August, Levy won Plymouth, a mostly white town with over 12,000 residents, with a little more than 58% of the vote.

Levy ticked through some of her main priorities, which include establishing federal protections for police officers and addressing rising prices and crime rates. But she had some of her longest interactions when talking about more personal things. She did not order any fair food staples, but she purchased a few items, including dog car magnets because of her work with animal shelters.

Not every attendee was completely sold, though. One woman working as a cashier in the kitchen said she had an opposite view when it comes to “medical freedom” for COVID-19 prevention, since she knows someone who is immunocompromised.

One Republican voter who missed the Aug. 9 primary said he would have voted for Levy regardless of Trump’s endorsement. Larry Walters of Woodbridge, 66, was one of the vendors promoting his small business, SteadyStraps, which sells adjustable straps to more easily hold phones. He said he gravitates toward “more conservative, common sense candidates” and wants to see lower taxes.

“President Trump has become such a divisive issue,” Walters said. “I recognize he’s got a number of issues that I think upset a number of people more from a personal standpoint. From a performance standpoint, I think a lot of people feel very strongly that he’s accomplished a lot for the country.”

But Democrats are enthusiastically seeking to make the connection between Trump and Republicans running for office across the state. The Connecticut Democratic Party is seeking to tie Trump to both Levy and Stefanowski, who have had different strategies when it comes to the former president.

For Blumenthal’s part, he has sought to paint Levy as “way out of the mainstream.” He specifically pointed to her positions on abortion rights and gun reform. Levy opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest or when the life of a pregnant person is endangered. And when it comes to guns, she raised concerns over a measure that would temporarily take away firearms from people who are a danger to themselves or others, wanting to see stronger due process provisions for gun owners.

“She wants government to make women’s health care decisions. I trust women to make their own decisions, and I’ve fought for decades for reproductive rights. She opposes commonsense measures to combat gun violence. I have fought for commonsense gun violence prevention measures at the state and federal level,” Blumenthal said in a statement.

“She considers Jan. 6 to be ‘legitimate political discourse,’ and she is Donald Trump’s hand-picked choice,” he added, referring to her vote this year for an RNC resolution about the violence that unfolded after rioters breached the U.S. Capitol. “I am working to be Connecticut’s choice.”

‘Interference of the government’ in schools

Republicans are largely trying to focus on economic issues, immigration and crime rates, even as the party veers into divisive social issues and Trump-pushed theories on voter fraud that are unfounded.

For the GOP candidates running on the top of the ticket in Connecticut, they’re increasingly wading into the debate over transgender rights and how schools should teach students about race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Stefanowski released a broad “parental bill of rights” and called for banning transgender athletes from women’s sports, though he argued that he’s not trying to impose anything “radical” on how to discuss those subjects.

In the Senate race, Levy flagged “the interference of the government between parents and their children” as a top concern. She has previously claimed schools are “indoctrinating” students by teaching critical race theory, a flashpoint that has grown among Republicans nationally despite most schools not offering such curriculum.

Those types of issues recently spilled out into the open and caused a political frenzy in Connecticut when Project Veritas, a conservative group that seeks to expose liberals and has been accused of deceptively editing videos, released hidden-camera footage alleging that educators in Greenwich are biased towards conservatives and Catholics.

Lawmakers and candidates in both parties — even those who have raised concerns about Project Veritas’ practices — swiftly condemned the video showing the assistant principal at Cos Cob School bragging to a woman about how he screened against conservative teaching applicants by using Catholicism and age as a determinant.

“This country was built on religious tolerance. Religious discrimination is inexcusable and illegal. Of course I support a full investigation,” Blumenthal said.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong announced he is opening a civil rights investigation into the allegations, saying that “discrimination, hate, bigotry against any person, and against any religion or on the basis of age, is reprehensible.”

At her press conference in front of Cos Cob School last week, Levy wove details from her bio as a Jewish immigrant from Communist Cuba, who grew up in the segregated American South, into a warning of how she sees more progressive politics undermining contemporary public education.

“What they are doing in trying to divide Americans, divide our children, teaching things like critical race theory and inappropriate sexual curriculums, it is to put the government between the kids and their parents. It’s exactly what Castro did,” Levy said.

“They can’t succeed without the government,” she added. “We cannot allow that, and that’s why I’m here.”

Staff writer Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.

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