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Blumenthal runs on decades-long record in Connecticut's U.S. Senate race

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal answers questions from reporters following a debate with his opponent in the 2022 U.S. Senate race, Leora Levy. Levy left following the debate without answering reporter questions.
Erica Phillips
CT Mirror
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal answers questions from reporters after a debate with Leora Levy, his opponent in the 2022 U.S. Senate race. Levy left after the debate without answering reporters' questions.

Richard Blumenthal’s long record in government is one of the most frequent topics of debate in Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race.

His Republican opponent, Leora Levy, calls him a career politician who is in lockstep with President Joe Biden. But the Democratic senator does not shy away from his decades of experience in elected office.

Blumenthal’s voting record and legislative history are the centerpieces of his campaign for a third term to the Senate against Levy. She has never run before, but Levy is very familiar with politics as a GOP fundraiser and a member of the Republican National Committee.

The senator’s work ethic and high-speed rate of campaigning have not changed from his early days in politics. Blumenthal, 76, attends multiple events a day throughout the state, election year or not. That has helped him become one of the most well-known political figures in Connecticut.

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.

He credited his parents as the biggest motivators for him getting involved in public service.

“My dad came to this country in 1935 to escape persecution in Germany at the age of 18. … This country gave him a chance to succeed,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “All of my growing-up years, my parents really explicitly or by their own example led my brother and me to feel that we have an obligation to give back to a country that has given us so much.”

Before his time in government, Blumenthal attended law school, served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and, at the age of 31, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as a top federal prosecutor in the state. But most of his working life has been as an elected official.

He served as a member in both chambers of the Connecticut General Assembly from 1984 to 1991 before becoming state attorney general for 20 years and then shifting to a federal role.

While he is at a different stage in his career, Blumenthal said the common thread throughout his nearly four decades in government has been his focus on consumer protection.

As attorney general, Blumenthal worked with a coalition of 46 states in a lawsuit against tobacco companies, eventually reaching a major settlement over allegations of deceptive practices about smoking. Some of his other work also mirrored what he eventually pursued in the Senate: online safety related to MySpace and Facebook as well as antitrust matters involving Microsoft.

From Connecticut to Washington

Blumenthal’s first election to the Senate came during a wave year for Republicans. In 2010, the GOP took back the House majority and was buoyed by the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Despite Republican Linda McMahon spending $50 million against him, Blumenthal prevailed, a victory that was one of the few bright spots for Democrats that year. He also weathered attacks from his opponent after he misspoke about serving in Vietnam. He has apologized for the mischaracterizations.

In 2016, Blumenthal won reelection by a larger double-digit margin during another good year for Republicans that included the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Blumenthal became the first candidate running statewide in Connecticut to garner more than 1 million votes.

Polling for the Nov. 8 election shows Blumenthal poised for another sizable victory, though his high-dollar spending against a less well-funded opponent who was off the air for weeks could be an indication of a tighter race. Regardless, Blumenthal says he always works “like I’m 10 points behind.”

Since first getting involved in politics and government, Blumenthal said “one regrettable change” has been the growing partisanship dividing the two parties.

“When I was attorney general, we did multistate actions very frequently. We never asked whether the colleagues joining were Republican or Democrat. They were all bipartisan,” Blumenthal said. “I hear that the Senate was once similar in that way.”

The senator frequently highlights the work he has done alongside his Republican colleagues over his past two terms, including his push to secure more aid for Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, to expand benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and toxins while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and to create guardrails to protect children using social media.

“I think we need to heal our divisions instead of hurling insults and bring the country together,” Blumenthal said.

Senate record

Since joining the Senate, Blumenthal has been involved in both domestic and international matters. He pushed for the bipartisan gun safety bill that was led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and has been vocal about opposing Russia’s invasion as well as Saudi Arabia’s decision to decrease oil production. He sits on panels including the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Blumenthal has been a member of both the Senate’s majority and minority during the past 12 years, but when Biden took office in early 2021, it was the first time he got to serve in a unified government, albeit one with very slim control.

The divided 50-50 Senate has complicated and sunk many Democratic priorities, but the party has also gotten through some of its biggest legislative endeavors. Blumenthal called the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — Democrats’ wide-ranging bill on health care, climate change and tax policy — “a bit of a political miracle.”

It is rare that the party in power moves major legislation months out from an election, especially when the majorities are at risk. But after multiple rounds of negotiations and what looked like the collapse of the party’s economic agenda, Democrats unified around the Inflation Reduction Act and passed the sweeping bill in August.

One major provision — allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs — has been a longtime goal for Blumenthal. It will initially apply to 10 drugs starting in 2026, and the number will increase each year through 2029. The bill also caps those out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 per year starting in 2026, though he wants to eventually broaden this beyond seniors.

“That was a major issue for me in 2010. It was a major issue for me before then. It has been a major issue for many of us over the years,” Blumenthal said. “And finally to achieve Medicare negotiations I think is historic.”

But other priorities could be on ice. If Blumenthal is reelected but his party loses either or both majorities, congressional Democrats will struggle to get much of anything done in the face of Republican resistance.

Divided government will likely stall a lot of legislative efforts: Republicans can block bills or prevent them from coming up, while Biden has the power to veto.

Levy playing catch-up

On the campaign trail, Blumenthal largely focuses on his own record without commenting on Levy. But during an interview with CT Mirror as well as the one and only Senate debate, he spent time highlighting the contrasts between them, whether it was on abortion rights, gun reform or spending cuts that could weaken Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Levy has criticized her opponent on everything from crime rates to the cost of living to border security. At Wednesday’s debate, she called Blumenthal a “rubber stamp” of the Biden administration and argued that voters want a fresh face.

The two candidates have very different styles and stand in contrast over most issues. She has been much less visible than Blumenthal on the campaign trail. One of their few similarities is that they both live in Greenwich.

Before her involvement in politics, Levy, 65, worked as a commodities trader. Her family, who is Jewish, fled Cuba in the 1960s during the Castro regime. 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.

Levy’s fundraising has improved over the past few months, though Blumenthal has a years-long advantage on the money front. Levy has put her own money into the race, lending herself a total of nearly $1.2 million. But it is only a tiny fraction of the self-funding used by the Republican candidate in Blumenthal’s 2010 race.

Levy has received a few endorsements from national party figures who are seen as potential presidential contenders in 2024, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, but their political action committees do not appear to be spending on advertising on her behalf.

Aside from her own campaign, Levy is getting the biggest boost from a super PAC backing her candidacy. Since she won the primary in August, Connecticut Patriots PAC upped its involvement in the general election in the final month with nearly $2 million in TV and digital ads and direct mail.

She is also getting some last-minute help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the main group tasked with trying to take back the Senate majority. The NRSC and the Levy campaign made a coordinated ad buy that started on Tuesday. It is a notable investment, given that Republicans are focused on a number of other pickup opportunities where they have better odds. On top of that, the party is defending a few vulnerable incumbents, plus seats where a GOP member has retired.

Levy’s closing argument reflects much of the rhetoric from other Republican candidates running for office around the country: blaming Democrats for high cost of living, crime and energy shortages.

“My opponent has been in politics since the Nixon Administration in 1969. He is an out-of-touch career politician,” Levy said in a statement. “Connecticut is ready for new leaders with fresh ideas to take the reins in Washington, and they know I represent a return to common-sense. I will fight to eliminate wasteful spending, to lower food and energy prices, and to make life affordable again.”

Still, the race is an uphill climb for Levy, as Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut since 1982, when Lowell Weicker won reelection. President Biden won the state by 20 percentage points over Trump in 2020.

And because of the former president’s involvement in the race, some analysts do not see it as a traditional referendum on the party in power. Blumenthal has made a similar point by noting the mutual support between Trump and Levy.

Levy has sought to downplay her connection to Trump, who endorsed her days before the Republican primary. While he has not visited Connecticut to campaign for her, Trump hosted a fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to help boost her fundraising in the final weeks. But Levy maintains that people will ultimately cast their votes based on Biden policies.

“The political climate is kind of unusual for a midterm election,” said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut. “It’s a little different in that former President Trump has inserted himself into the agenda in a way for some voters.”

“It seems they’re making a choice between what is under the Trump administration and what is under the Biden administration,” he continued, but added that because Biden is president, he ultimately “owns the good, bad and ugly.”

Blumenthal’s political future

Will he run again? Blumenthal will not give any hints about what is next.

When asked if this will be his last run or if he would seek reelection, Blumenthal said his focus is on “this campaign.”

If he wins on Nov. 8, Blumenthal will be 82 at the end of his six-year term. But lawmakers are remaining in office longer, with the average age of senators at 64.

“I’m going to continue working as though the lives of Connecticut’s people may depend on the outcome, because in some ways, they may well,” he said.

While Blumenthal is hoping for another six years to make his mark on Washington, some view the summation of his career as a believer that the government can be a vessel for helping people.

“In a sense, his legacy may be that the government is here to improve the lives of the American people,” Herrnson said. “Not socialism, but that the government can play a positive role.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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