Lucky Long Islanders will have one of the hottest Congressional races in 2014 right in our own backyard. That means that once again, big money will come pouring in from outside interests. It won’t put anybody back to work, necessarily, but at least it will keep the Island in the nation’s political cross-hairs through November.
Republicans and their conservative super-PACS, whether run by Karl Rove or somebody of his ilk, have promised to spend millions of dollars to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who’s been representing New York’s 1st Congressional District since 2003. They coughed up $4 million two years ago and lost.
The GOP thinks Bishop is more vulnerable this time thanks to Obamacare. Their most likely contender, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), has been hammering that message home repeatedly in his fundraising—and he repeated that theme when he officially launched his candidacy at the Portuguese American Center in Farmingville on Jan. 9.
The headaches with the Affordable Care Act certainly are widely known now but local voters might be sick of hearing about them by November. House Republicans have already voted 47 times in vain to repeal Obamacare—talk about beating a dead horse—but it’s apparently the only issue they really want to run on, even if they can do nothing but complain about it.
Interestingly, Bishop and three other New Yorkers in swing districts were among the 39 House Democrats who crossed party lines late last year to vote for a Republican bill allowing health insurers to resume selling low-cost policies that have been cancelled because they didn’t provide all the coverage required under the new law. That initiative grew out of President Obama’s misguided promise that “you can keep your health insurance policy if you like it.” As the conservative attack ads describe it: “They lied to you!”
Perhaps Bishop voted with the Republicans to inoculate himself from the negative campaign virus to come, but he explained it differently:
“This was not a vote against the health reform law,” Rep. Bishop told the Press in an email, “but a vote to ensure the intent of Congress when we passed it with a grandfather clause for existing plans. I, along with the President of the United States, said that people could keep their plan if they liked it, and for some people, that turned out not to be true. I voted for the bill because I stand by my statements, and this bill was a way to assist those that were losing their plans.”
Nationally, Democrats hope they can change the subject and use the economy against their opponents, by drumming up support to raise the minimum wage, extend long-term unemployment insurance (this affects almost 10,000 Long Islanders) as well as enact immigration reform (and there are countless undocumented workers in the 1st District and elsewhere on the Island).
Another factor to give the Republicans pause this time around is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s name will be on the ballot as he runs for re-election. Bipartisanship seems to be his singular achievement in Albany, if you can believe the most powerful elected Republican in New York who happens to be Rockville Centre’s own state Sen. Dean Skelos.
But the governor is also popular with Democrats and they might actually come out to vote for him in Suffolk, and while they’re at it, cast one for Bishop. Obama won’t be on the ballot, but he did carry that district, albeit barely, in 2008 and 2012. Certainly, thanks to the super-PACs, his name will be bandied about. But if the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decides to counter with ads in the district that depict formerly uninsured people describing in dramatic detail what they’d lose if Obamacare were repealed, the voters might sympathize. Or not.
By all accounts, Zeldin is better positioned this time around to make his race against Bishop more competitive than he did in 2008 when the incumbent Congressman trounced him by 16 percentage points (58 percent to 42 percent). In 2010, Zeldin parlayed suburban anger over the MTA payroll tax to oust the Democratic state Senator, Brookhaven’s former supervisor Brian Foley, and Zeldin has been staking out local positions on rolling back the Common Core Curriculum as well as repeating his opposition to the payroll tax that seem to resonate with his constituents.
Democrats, nationally and locally, hope to make the 2014 election about the economy—and paint Congressional Republicans as heartless bastards, to put it bluntly, especially when they allowed benefits for the long-term unemployed to expire three days after Christmas.
Asked whether Zeldin would have also opposed extending the benefits, his spokeswoman Kara Cumoletti said, “Senator Zeldin believes that it would be a much better strategy for Congress to focus on improving our economy and creating jobs. He asks, ‘Why are so many politicians obsessed with desperately pandering to people suffering by only giving them enough tools to barely get by? It’s best to demonstrate compassion by helping lower income Americans rise to the middle class… Don’t try so hard to sustain them in poverty.”
In other words, good luck with that.
“It’s all about creating jobs,” says Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, who believes that Bishop’s record on that front will help him. The Congressman enabled the Brookhaven National Laboratory to get $165 million in the new federal spending bill, which will keep the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider running—after Republicans had put it on the chopping block—and preserving some 800 positions.
But there’s something about this East End district that attracts do-overs.
The 2012 race was a repeat between Bishop and millionaire entrepreneur Randy Altschuler, who had fallen 600 votes short in 2010. But two years later Altschuler lost ground, losing by almost five percentage points, 52.4 to 47.5. The outcome really shocked him because he thought Bishop was a goner. Well, he got it wrong.
This time around, the Republicans think they have the advantage. Zeldin has the blessing of the local party officials. But not to be denied is George Demos, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor who ran for Congress in the 2010 Republican primary before losing out to Altschuler. He’s reportedly put a million dollars of his own money to run a primary against Zeldin. Demos’ campaign manager, Kevin Tschirhart, told NY1’s “State of Politics” blog that Zeldin has lined up “the same old power brokers, lobbyists, political bosses…to show their support for one of their own.” In response, Smithtown Republican Chairman Bill Ellis retorted, “You’d have to be delusional to think George Demos will ever win an election.”
Demos probably won’t win the Republican Party’s nod this year either but he certainly promises to be entertaining, if his recent 30-second campaign spot is any indication. It linked Tim Bishop to President Obama and Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, asking viewers if they’re “tired of politicians?” Demos claims he’s “not a politician.” Few observers would dispute that.
One issue we’ll be sure to hear more about—even though Bishop dealt with it two years ago—is that the Office of Congressional Ethics was looking into whether the Congressman helped hedge fund magnate Eric Semler get an environmental permit to launch fireworks at his son’s bar mitzvah in exchange for a campaign donation.
“After the fact, after I got the permit, I did receive a request for a donation,” Semler told Politico in August 2012. “Tim never said anything to me about a donation. I didn’t know he was running for re-election…I would love to support a guy like that.”