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The Connecticut Mirror's Mark Pazniokas previews the Aug. 9 primaries

"I voted" sticker at a polling place
Chion Wolf
Connecticut Public

Connecticut Mirror co-founder and Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas joined "All Things Considered" for a robust discussion about the Aug. 9 primaries in Connecticut.

We spent a fair amount of time on the Republican U.S. Senate primary featuring Themis Klarides and her more conservative rivals Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj.

All three seem to be keeping a lower profile so far this election season. We also discussed some of the players in other races in both parties and why turnout this year might be especially low.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is an edited, machine-generated transcription of the conversation:

John Henry Smith 0:00

For Connecticut Public Radio, I'm John Henry Smith. You can't have elections on November 8 if the parties don't pick candidates to run in said elections. Primary day is when voters pick the last of those candidates in Connecticut. Primary day is right around the corner on Tuesday, August 9. To preview both sides of the aisle, I've invited Connecticut Mirror co-founder and Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas onto the program. Mark will dedicate this segment to the GOP primary. And actually my first question applies to both parties. Republican Senate challenger Themis Klarides is one of many candidates carrying the endorsement of their respective parties. How much of an upset would it be if any of the endorsed candidates lose?

Mark Pazniokas 0:44

We don't have to go back too far. Bob Stefanowski, who is the Republican candidate for governor this year, he won a primary four years ago without the endorsement of the state convention. In fact, he never even sought the endorsement of the convention. So that was really an unusual situation. But normally, the party endorsements do carry great weight in primaries, that has been the history in Connecticut. Generally speaking, the endorsements in this state still mean something.

John Henry Smith 1:18

And just a note to our listeners. I mentioned Themis Klarides. She is married to Gregory B Butler, who is a member of Connecticut Public's Board of Trustees. Now, we saw the televised GOP senatorial debate a few days ago, of which Ms. Klarides was a participant as well as Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj. We've seen the commercials from Ms. Klarides and from Leora Levy. None from Peter Lumaj as far as I can tell. What have been your takeaways from the way the race to face Dick Blumenthal has played out so far?

Mark Pazniokas 1:51

Well, a few takeaways. One, none of these candidates has published a schedule that has really invited press attention. So that debate was really the one and only opportunity for a really broad audience to see these three candidates. The other thing is, you know, it is been a campaign in which Themis Klarides has tried to not engage Leora Levy on questions of loyalty to Donald Trump and other, other things that would appeal to the conservative base in the party. Themis Klarides is on the record as not voting for Donald Trump in 2020. And that makes her unusual in Republican politics in this cycle, not just in Connecticut, but around the country. So you know, that puts her in good stead or at least it certainly helps her more than hurts her and in general election against Richard Blumenthal, but it's a dicey thing for the primary. So it is been one of those issues that when it comes up, she answered it forthrightly, but she's not really thrilled to talk about it.

John Henry Smith 3:07

Well, a couple of things from that answer, number one, had been if turnout from this primary turns out to be in the 30% range, as it seems to have been for other recent primaries. I mean, how much trouble could that spell for Themis Klarides, who besides her lack of fealty to Donald Trump, she also espouses positions like gay marriage and abortion rights and post-Sandy Hook gun controls that the further right wing of the GOP don't agree with.

Connecticut has a primary Aug. 9. Here's what you need to know.

Mark Pazniokas 3:37

It's the player that you know that that is invisible on the field. It's who is going to turn out for midsummer primary that does not have a gubernatorial primary pulling out voters, that does not have a lot of down ballot primaries in which people are for their own purposes trying to get out their vote. And that is the thing that frightened moderate Republicans about whether or not Leora Levy or Peter Lumaj, who are far more conservative, that a in small turnout they could possibly win, and the conventional wisdom, and I think polling would bear that out, is that neither one of them match up as well against Richard Blumenthal as does Themis Klarides. Now I'll quickly add that Themis Klarides in every poll also trails Blumenthal, but you know, the feeling is she is a better match for the Connecticut general electorate than either Leora Levy or Peter Lumaj.

John Henry Smith 4:39

And also, you mentioned that none of the three candidates in the senatorial primary have really made themselves available during the march up to the primary day. How odd is that?

Mark Pazniokas 4:53

Very odd because none of them have deep pockets. Two of the three are on television, Klarides and Levy, but their fundraising has not been great. So you would think they would be interested in having earned media, of having TV, print and radio folks tag along and see if they could generate some interest, you know, invite reporters to events, where all three are going to be talking to a Republican town committee. You know, I went to one event where I was told all three would be there. And it turned out, it was only Themis Klarides. But, you know, that's the, those are the kinds of events where you can develop a certain pace and rhythm to a campaign and engage the media, engage the voters. And that has not happened. And again, in the case of Klarides, I think I can understand the tactical decision that she is playing a little bit of rope-a-dope, and trying to get through August 9, and then focus on Senator Blumenthal without having to go on the record to win a primary on issues in ways that would be problematic in November. She had a little bit of one of those moments at the debate when she was asked about voting for Donald Trump in 2024 If he runs, and her answer was not what it, what it was about 2020, which she said, No, I did not think he was qualified at that point. And I did not want to vote for him. But her answer was a little bit different this time. She said, Well, it depends who would be running against him. So she hedged a little bit. And I think in part to avoid further problems with the Trump base in the Republican Party in Connecticut.

John Henry Smith 6:48

And for our listeners who are not sports fans, rope-a-dope, just Google rope-a-dope and the great Muhammad Ali. Google'll tell you all about it. Mark, I know you know all about it. Yeah. So they trick classic defensive boxing stance, take the punishment, let the other pro boxer tire themselves out is basically what that is.

Mark Pazniokas 7:08

That's it. And I rarely use sports analogy, but I always love that one.

John Henry Smith 7:14

It really did a number on George Foreman, I'll tell you that. Anyhow, so are there any other GOP primary races that stick out to you either from the secretary of the state or from the state treasurer's races or from many of the State House races?

Mark Pazniokas 7:29

Not really. The other primary, the other statewide primary that the Republicans have for secretary of the state has been very low key, neither one has really gone after the other. They seem to agree on a lot of things. They both favor photo ID to vote. That's something that the Democrats generally oppose, although that's not something the secretary of the state, even as the chief election officer, can mandate, that's a question of state law. So that's been something of a yawner. There are a couple of state House primaries, but they have not really engendered a lot of attention. And then there's one congressional primary on the Republican side, Jayme Stevenson, the endorsed candidate in the 4th District, the district is represented by Jim Himes. She does have a primary from a challenger, from a guy, Michael Ted Goldstein, who does not have much money, and that is not expected to be a close primary. You know, for the Republicans, they've been successful in bringing their party together. This is the party that quite often would have pretty silly primaries, very nasty primaries for offices that they would have trouble winning even if they were unified. So they have done a good job at avoiding primaries, particularly in the two congressional districts that are most competitive, the 2nd District in the east, although with Joe Courtney there and his many years of service, that's an unlikely pickup for Republicans. And then in the west, the 5th District, Jahana Hayes has not been around as long. So the Republicans were happy that George Logan, their nominee, did not face a primary that would take away resources from a November fight against Jahana Hayes.

John Henry Smith 9:28

So you're saying the Republicans have fallen in line and acted nicer to each other during this primary season? Is that (Connecticut Republican Party Chair) Ben Proto's doing?

Mark Pazniokas 9:37

He certainly urged that, but I will say state party chairs often get too much credit and too much blame. I mean, Ben certainly has done what he can to dissuade people from challenges that, in which they're going to be a long shot and which the party does not want the distraction. They were unsuccessful in the 4th District. And I think if he had his druthers, they would have avoided a primary for the Senate, particularly since the candidates have not taken advantage of the fact that they could have had a lot of free media attention if they had waged a more vigorous public campaign. Because that is the value sometimes of a primary. If you can get through a primary without being too nasty, sometimes you do get a little bounce from that, you know, you are declared, you know, one of you is declared the winner on August 9, and sometimes you get a little bit of momentum going into the fall. But yeah, so in any event, Ben, I think, is quite happy with the, the ability to avoid a lot of primaries, there's only still two primaries in the General Assembly on the Republican side. And only one of them is a challenge to an incumbent down in Southbury. But again, that's been very sleepy.

John Henry Smith 11:07

And final question, to what degree will this primary and ultimately, of course, this election, but we're sticking with primary for right now, to what degree will it be any sort of referendum on, say, extreme right politics or the abortion question?

Mark Pazniokas 11:25

If anyone other than Themis Klarides is the winner on August 9, I think there'll be a lot of attention paid to what this says about conservative turn in the Republican Party on the questions of Donald Trump, abortion rights and perhaps other things. If Themis Klarides wins, it's a three-way primary, so the conservative vote is split. So you're gonna have to do a little bit deeper analysis about where the votes came from, to try to figure out what this says about the current state of mind of the Republican Party in Connecticut.

John Henry Smith 12:03

OK, Mark, let's talk about the Democrats now. How are the Democratic primaries looking?

Mark Pazniokas 12:09

Well, there are only two statewide primaries on the Democratic side, and they are for offices that do not engender a lot of attention. It's for state treasurer and secretary of the state. And you do not see wedge issues, you do not see anything that's expected to really draw people to the polls. And so absent that, you usually look to see if there's any action in the cities, right? Because in the cities, the Democratic primaries are really tantamount to the election. And it's been quiet there as well. We have some interesting primaries in Bridgeport. You have state senator Dennis Bradley, who is facing criminal charges in a campaign finance case. He did not get the endorsement, but he qualified for the ballot. So there's going to be an interesting primary there. And then there's another primary in Bridgeport for a House seat. But Hartford, New Haven, where usually you get a couple of primaries, there's nothing going on there. So there's, there's nobody in the cities who has reason to try to draw out the vote. So it could be a very small statewide turnout for state treasurer and secretary of the state.

John Henry Smith 13:31

Have we learned anything? The state treasurer and the secretary of the state races? Can 10 percent of the people walking down the street tell you who's running?

Mark Pazniokas 13:43

It's a good question. It, you know, at the Democratic Convention, it was really about identity politics. The Democrats have not had an all-white slate, and put it the other way, they have had some diversity on their slates, you know, since 1962, and the first Black person elected to statewide office was elected to the Office of State Treasurer. And just the way things have broken since then, you know, Democrats have always nominated just the way it's worked out, because often that would, when there would be an open race, that would be the only one and so it really became almost labeled as the minority office, the Black office, which has been a you know, a little awkward at times. So this year, in these two open races, you have two diverse fields for treasurer. You have Erick Russell, who is the endorsed candidate, he's an African American man, openly gay if he was elected. I'm told by the Victory Fund, which is a national gay rights group, that Erick would be the first openly gay Black statewide elected official in the United States. And then there's Karen Dubois-Walton, who chairs the State Board of Ed and she also runs the housing authority in New Haven. She is a Black woman, and there is Dita Bhargava, who is of Indian descent, and down in Greenwich, and those are the three for treasurer, Dita Bhargava has done some creative advertising, trying to engage voters who otherwise would probably not be closely following the return on investment that the pension fund is getting, which is really one of the most important jobs of the State Treasurer's Office. But she has introduced the ability of the treasurer to be a social activist to pressure companies in which Connecticut's vast pension fund is invested to do what she said should be the right thing on abortion, on guns on all kinds of things. So she has had two ads that have tried to excite people to turn out and, you know, think of her as somebody who would be a social crusader. On the secretary of the state side, Stephanie Thomas, state rep from Norwalk, again, a little bit of identity politics. Stephanie Thomas is a Black woman, she would be the first woman of color to be elected secretary of the state. Her opponent is Maritza Bond, who is a Latina from New Haven, she is the public health director. So whatever happens there, there will be another degree of racial diversity as well, as you know, again, if depending who wins treasurer, it could get another woman on the ticket. But identity politics has been part of that. But again, for secretary of the state I don't see a lot that separates Stephanie Thomas from Maritza Bond in their attitude towards ballot access. You know, they both would prefer to see Connecticut embrace early voting, which will be on the ballot, by the way in November, a constitutional amendment that would allow that, and then questions of, you know, ease of absentee ballot use. And they have been opposed to, you know, anything that would tighten the qualifications to vote, you know, including using, requiring photo ID, which Connecticut does not require.

John Henry Smith 17:43

Well, let's get to the Senate primary real quick. And obviously, there's nobody, there is no primary on the Democratic side, but there, you know, they say for every action, there is a reaction. So are Dems viewing the Senate primary, are they secretly rooting for the further right candidates, Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj, to upset Themis Klarides? Because they think either of them will be easier opponents for Dick Blumenthal, or is the Dem machine already, have they already just moved into fight them as Klarides mode?

Mark Pazniokas 18:11

There's been no evidence in Connecticut of what we've seen in some other states, which is the Democrats quietly supporting somebody who they think is too right wing to win a general election. I think Democrats would prefer to see Leora Levy win, that her views on abortion for Connecticut may be seen as extreme, she is opposed to abortion in all cases, except to save the life of the mother, or in the case of rape or incest. So I think the Democrats would prefer to see somebody other than Themis Klarides, but again, we haven't seen any efforts to sort of, you know, nudge the Republicans the way that we've seen in some other states.

John Henry Smith 19:06

Oh, hey, you say nudge, you’re being kind. I mean, there are reports of many Democrats right now registering to vote as Republicans to try to vote in primaries, there were reports of lots of money going into the campaigns of various people who the Republicans or Democrats would rather run against, you're saying you're —

Mark Pazniokas 19:27

In Connecticut, it's a little bit harder, to kind of flip from one party to the other. You know, there's, there's restrictions on the calendar as to when you can do it. It's easier for unaffiliates to do it, but you're right, in some states, you know, the day before the election, the day of the election, you can decide what primary you're going to play in.

John Henry Smith 19:47

Which is lunacy.

Mark Pazniokas 19:48

In Massachusetts, I don't know if it's still the law, but that was a factor when Michael Dukakis, you know, who was eventually the Democratic nominee for president, but he lost as a sitting governor. He lost the Democratic primary in part because a lot of Democrats decided to go vote in the Republican primary in which a conservative was trying to unseat, at the time, the only Black member of the U.S. Senate, who was Ed Brook, a Republican. So, you know, there is, you know, these cross currents that can affect, you know, what happens in the other party. In the case of Massachusetts, that was not meant to be mischievous. I think that was a sincere effort by people to prop up a senator who they respected in the other party.

John Henry Smith 20:34

What's one hot take bold prediction you have for the primary coming up? And you can, I know, we've focused on the Democrats here, but from either side of the aisle or just in general?

Mark Pazniokas 20:46

Well, I, I never do predictions because I don't want to be vested even in the deep recesses of my, my consciousness. But you know, I think the hot take is really not a hot take, but the obvious question is going to be, do the Republicans in Connecticut have a primary result that really defines them, that pushes them more towards Trump, away from Trump, that keeps them in line with the national Republicans who are strongly anti abortion? That's going to be what we're going to be looking for Tuesday. And again, if it's Themis Klardes against two conservatives, it's not going to be definitive, in my view about resolving anything about this party's identity. But you know, if Leora Levy or Peter Lumaj can, can win despite splitting a conservative vote, I think you would see shock waves in Connecticut about what is the identity of the Republican Party?

John Henry Smith 21:54

I will add one more question to this. I mean, what we'll, we will play the extended cut of this whole, with this will make air, but we'll make it play the extended cut on the web. I find it very interesting that there's certain candidates that just run and run and run and run even though they don't win. You can go, I mean, in Connecticut politics, I mean, Stefanowski ran for governor once before and he didn't win, and he's running again. The the late, great Oz Griebel ran many, many times, Peter Lumaj, same thing. What is it? Is it, is it a political truism that, that if you don't get it done the first one or two times that pretty much I mean that your chances are pretty low going forward? You get branded as the other candidate going forward? Or is, or is, or is that not your view of how that works in politics?

Mark Pazniokas 23:01

I wouldn't view it that broadly. So you can take somebody like Peter Lumaj, who did win a nomination to run for secretary of the state a couple cycles ago. But then he's run other times and has not even made the ballot. So I think it's easy to be dismissive of somebody like that, who keeps running without showing any signs of progress. Now, on the other hand, Dan Malloy ran for governor in 2006. He lost the Democratic primary to John DeStefano, the mayor of New Haven, and then he came back in 2010. He had benefited by his statewide exposure, I think, in 2006, and he won in 2010. Ned Lamont ran what was considered kind of a national protest campaign against Joe Lieberman in 2006 over the war in Iraq. He won a Democratic primary, lost the general election and when Joe Lieberman stayed on the ballot as an independent, then he ran for governor against Malloy in 2010. And you think OK, is his time done? But, you know, he came back in 2018, after being away, although he had been, he had been involved at the edges. And he won. I wouldn't put Bob Stefanowski or even Tom Foley, the Republican nominee before him, in the same category as somebody like Peter, who has gone time and time again. I think, you know, Bob Stefanowski lost by three points four years ago. He was the consensus pick this time for governor, so he's taken another shot. Tom Foley was a similar thing. He lost a super close race to Dan Malloy in 2010. And the party said, OK, we're gonna give you another shot and and he he lost by a larger margin. So you know, it's a mixed bag sometimes, you get some benefit by running and losing. You know, there was an expectation when Chris Murphy ran in 2006 for Congress against Nancy Johnson that he might not win that time, but he would benefit by having run and then take another shot in 2008. And of course, he didn't need to do it because he took her out in 2006. You know, in the 2nd District. I don't know if people really think Mike France, who is the Republican candidate, he's a state rep, if he can, if he can beat Courtney. But if Courtney doesn't run in two years, will Mike France benefit by having run once before and maybe that'll give him a head start in two years if it's an open seat? So those are the kind of pluses and minuses of these repeat candidates.

John Henry Smith 26:03

Well, I would say that was a robust discussion. Mark Pazniokas of the Connecticut Mirror, thank you so very much.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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