SHIRLEY, N.Y. – Can a conservative Jewish Republican find political happiness on New York’s Long Island?
The House GOP hopes so, with the leadership descending upon the island’s East End and its wealthy Hamptons to boost the candidacy of state Sen. Lee Zeldin in his challenge to six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop.
If elected, the 34-year-old Zeldin would be the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, filling a major void after the stunning primary defeat and departure of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has travelled to New York to lend a campaign hand. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be there next week and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, will visit soon. The American Action Network, chaired by another Jewish Republican, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, is spending $1.2 million on ads criticizing Bishop.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and conservative commentator Bill Kristol plan events for Zeldin, according to the candidate.
“Eric Cantor leaves behind some unfinished work and leaves a vacuum with regard to a strong voice within the party and Congress,” Zeldin said in a recent interview.
Ready to step into Cantor’s role, Zeldin faces a formidable task in trying to upend Bishop in New York, which offers a fair share of competitive congressional races in Syracuse, Staten Island and the Hudson Valley.
The 64-year-old Bishop is a centrist and a survivor who has fought off multiple GOP attempts to unseat him in a true swing district President Barack Obama narrowly won it in 2008 and 2012.
In a toxic year for Democrats, Bishop’s laser-like focus on his constituent work, saving jobs at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and an air traffic control facility in Westbury, stands as a prescription for incumbents trying to survive. So does his well-honed, get-out-the-vote operation that counts seven offices, 450,000 phone calls and volunteer visits to 100,000 homes.
“This has always been a Republican district and I’ve held onto it now for six terms and I’ve held onto it because I work my tail off and I deliver,” Bishop said in a recent interview. “People know that I know what I’m doing. They know that I know every inch of this district. They know that I care about the people of this district.”
About two dozen voters welcomed the Democrat at Al Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm in Peconic, spread out between the multiple wineries on the North Shore. Bishop picked up the endorsement of Krupski, a Suffolk County legislator who praised him for saving a Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program at local schools.
In 2008, Bishop beat Zeldin. The two candidates square off in a debate on Wednesday.
The stock market surge since 2008 has been a financial boom for the 1 per cent in the Hamptons.
An oceanfront estate on Southampton’s Gin Lane is priced at $98 million, Maseratis are common on the summertime, traffic-choked streets and Sagaponack Pond has been nicknamed Goldman Pond for the top echelon of the global investment firm Goldman Sachs living nearby.
Some 15 miles west, in Mastic Beach, homes within walking distance of the water are boarded up and unoccupied as the community is still reeling from Superstorm Sandy nearly two years later.
Kevin Collins, the director of the Mastic Beach Property Owners Association, said he once had a waiting list for slips at the marina. Now, many remain empty.
“This is a blue-collar, working-class neighbourhood and the first thing that goes is the pleasure craft,” Collins says.
Registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 19,000 in the district, but New York allows a resident to register to vote where they have a weekend or summer home.
That was the difference for Bishop in a razor-thin win in 2010 when he trailed by 2,500 in Election Day votes but prevailed, thanks to 3,100 absentee ballots.
For many district voters, the nation’s economic direction and their own financial outlook will be a factor in their vote.
Zeldin casts his candidacy as change, arguing that 12 years of Bishop is enough. If elected, he would fit in with the majority Republicans who are expected to hold the House. He opposes the comprehensive immigration bill and Common Core education standards, wants to repeal Obama’s health care law and in June 2011 voted against legalizing gay marriage in New York.
A campaign visit from Hensarling could be problematic for Zeldin in a district where the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 still reverberate. The committee chairman has been at odds with some in his party over how to reauthorize government-backed terrorism insurance and opposes the Export-Import Bank favoured by numerous businesses.
“You’re going to represent New York and you’re not going to support terrorism risk insurance and you’re going to talk about how you want to stimulate the economy but we’re going to do so by losing 200,000 jobs because we’ve eliminated the Export-Import bank?” says Bishop. “Bring it on, Jeb, fine with me.”