About half an hour after the polls had closed on Election Day, Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer said he expected such a close race between U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and New York State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) that he doubted it would even be decided that night.
Schaffer was standing on a platform facing TV news cameras as people milled around behind him in the crowded ballroom of the Islandia Marriott in Hauppauge, where his party had gathered to await the election results. As it turned out, the party chairman didn’t have to wait that long after all. Early returns showed the six-term incumbent congressman trailing his Republican challenger by more than 6,000 votes.
At a little after 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Schaffer suddenly took the stage, grabbed the microphone, and introduced Bishop before the crowd had a chance to react. The race was over, and Bishop, 64, was about to concede.
“We had a great run in a district that’s flipped back and forth quite a few times,” Bishop told his supporters. “To give it 12 years of stability is something I’m very proud of.”
And so the second time was the charm for Zeldin. In 2008, when he first challenged Bishop, the congressman had defeated Zeldin 58 percent to 42 percent. This week, Zeldin beat Bishop 55 percent to 45 percent.
The 34-year-old state Senator had accomplished what Bishop’s previous Republican challenger Randy Altschuler had twice failed to do. The wealthy Republican businessman lost by 600 votes in 2010—an election that took almost a month after Election Day to resolve—and then in 2012 fell more decisively, by almost five percentage points, 52.4 to 47.5 percent.
Zeldin, a major in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq, may have benefitted from defeating George Demos, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor, in the Republican primary. Demos’ campaign manager, Kevin Tschirhart, had told NY1’s “State of Politics” blog back in the winter that Zeldin had lined up “the same old power brokers, lobbyists, political bosses…to show their support for one of their own.” Perhaps the primary gave that “same old” crew a practice run, since they trounced Demos and went on to victory in November, overcoming September surveys that had showed Bishop up by 10 points.
Perhaps Zeldin was also helped by the millions of dollars spent by outside interests. The race for the First Congressional District, which extends from Montauk to Smithtown, was one of the most expensive in the country, totaling some $15 million, according to reports. The Center for Responsive Politics said that “outsiders” invested $8,878, 928 in the contest.
Bishop seemed to feel that most of that money was spent attacking him.
“I’ve had eight million dollars’ worth of scurrilous, inaccurate, almost slanderous attack ads dropped on me in two years,” he told the Press. He recounted how he’d been watching Monday night’s Giants game and saw first one negative ad and then another. He quipped: “I wouldn’t vote for me!”
During his concession speech, he told the audience about an encounter he’d had on the campaign trail the day before. He’d been knocking on doors in Homestead Village when a “9-year-old boy standing about 50 feet away from me, yells, ‘Hey, are you Tim Bishop?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I am.’” The kid came over to pose with Bishop for a photograph. Then the youngster wanted to campaign with him.
“So, I gave him my clipboard, and he quickly picked up what we were doing as we were walking,” Bishop recalled. “Then he says to me, ‘Tell me, why do they make you seem like such a bad man?’ I tried to explain to him what campaigning is like in 2014. He thought for a second, and then he looked at me and goes, ‘They’re not going to get away with it.’”
As Bishop, a former Southampton College provost, told this reporter afterwards: “I got my ass kicked. But at some point, as a nation, we have to restore civility, we have to restore some degree of professionalism, and some degree of honesty, to the way we conduct our campaigns.”
In Zeldin’s victory speech, the Albany lawmaker took a conciliatory tone. “I wish Congressman Tim Bishop well following twelve years of important service to the residents of the First Congressional District,” he said at The Emporium in Patchogue, where the Suffolk GOP gathered for their election night party.
Bishop told the crowd at the Marriott that he leaves office with his head held high. He thanked his supporters for giving him “the greatest honor of my life.”