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Democratic Primary to Challenge Zeldin Will Be Competitive (Updated)

Lee Zeldin
Democratic groups have targeted Zeldin as a vulnerable incumbent Republican. (File Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated August 4 11:05 a.m. | The Democrat who challenges GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin in New York’s 1st District will face a close race. But the eventual nominee will have a primary shaping up to be just as competitive, political handicappers say.

The only two declared candidates for the Democratic nomination are Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and former federal prosecutor and venture capitalist David Calone. They are locked in a tight race, with each candidate drawing on different bases of support in the Long Island district, and both having raised close to a half million dollars so far.

Throne-Holst, who’s from the small town of Southampton, has garnered a few high-profile endorsements, including those of EMILY’s List, a pro-choice Democratic fundraising organization that backs female candidates, and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman and fellow New Yorker Rep. Steve Israel.

“I’ve known her for many years, I was a town councilman on Long Island, she’s a town supervisor, and I believe she has all the tools you need to run a very competitive election,” Israel told CQ Roll Call in an interview off the House floor.

While Throne-Holst was registered until recently as a member of New York’s Independence Party, she changed her registration to Democrat. Her endorsements show the party establishment has, for the most part, welcomed her.

Throne-Holst told CQ Roll Call she plans to run on her track record in elected office, including fixing her town’s finances.

Calone, in contrast, referenced his status as a long-time Democrat who has close ties to Brookhaven, the largest town in the district, and said he would run on his record of successfully starting and building companies in the private sector.

“All the Democratic electeds who live in the district have supported me, I have the support of all the regional unions who have endorsed,” said Calone, who also serves as chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

Throne-Holst’s campaign pointed out that she did pick up the endorsement from the town supervisor of Shelter Island, which is in the district.

While Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn and former Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko have both been mentioned as possible candidates — and Newsday reported both met with Democrats in Washington to explore possible candidacies — Hahn told CQ Roll Call she will not get into the race, and two sources said they don’t expect Lesko to declare.

The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the district as Leans Republican, but with former Empire State Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the likely Democratic presidential nominee at the top of the ticket to drive turnout, strategists are predicting a close race no matter which Democrat wins the primary.

“It’s nice to have two nice options like this, and I don’t think in most places where you’re going to have a Democratic primary, most folks will be able to say we’re in good shape no matter who wins,” said Mike Morey, a senior vice president for progressive consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker based in New York. “Zeldin is going to have a challenge ahead of him.”

Strategists say they are impressed with both candidates’ early fundraising numbers.

“The Democratic primary is going to be extremely competitive,” Jeffrey Guillot, a Long Island-based political operative and partner at New York political consulting firm Millennial Strategies, said. “They both raised an incredible amount of money in the first quarter so I’m sure it’s going to be one of the most watched primaries nationwide.”

Morey said Throne-Holst may have a slight advantage at this point, given her higher name identification from her multiple runs for elected office and her compelling personal story as a single working mother with children in college that will resonate with primary voters.

Both candidates are also keeping an eye towards the general election. Throne-Holst and Calone mentioned Zeldin’s votes against funding for the Department of Homeland Security and student loans and Pell grants as signs that he is out of touch with the district, and Democrats have indicated they will attempt to paint the foreign policy hawk and only Jewish Republican in Congress as too extreme for the moderate swing district.

But Zeldin starts off with a larger amount of cash on hand, a Republican edge in the district’s voter registration, a reputation for being a hard worker, and all the advantages of being an incumbent.

However, he told CQ Roll Call he is not taking any day for granted in a district that President Barack Obama narrowly won in 2012 and which was previously held by Democrat Timothy H. Bishop for six terms.

“When that time comes to campaign, I know that we’ll be ready and looking forward to that when the time comes, right now we’re focused on making the most of every day that we’re [in Washington] or back home,” Zeldin said. “There are so many different causes we’ve been active in, and I apologize for none of them.”

The Long Island swing district is on Democrats’ radar as a top target and has drawn early attention from outside groups, indicative of the likely high level of spending that will pour into the race during the 2016 cycle.

Guillot predicted that all manner of spending records will be broken for the seat this cycle.

Along with EMILY’s List, the DCCC has targeted Zeldin on its “One-Term Wonders” list of Republican freshmen, and the National Republican Congressional Committee placed Zeldin in the party’s Patriot Program, which is meant to protect its most at-risk incumbents.


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