Editoral: Democrats choose a foil for Zeldin. What comes next?

Democratic voters in the 1st Congressional District, which covers the five East End Towns, Brookhaven and part of Smithtown, came out in strong numbers Tuesday to elect Perry Gershon of East Hampton as their candidate.

He will run against GOP incumbent Lee Zeldin in November. Beyond the question of which man will be elected to represent our district is the far larger question of which party will control the House of Representatives — and perhaps the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency.

There are certainly signs of Democratic enthusiasm to reclaim the House from the Republicans, who also control the U.S. Senate and, with Donald Trump in the White House, the presidency. We saw it here on Tuesday: More than 20,000 voters turned out to cast ballots, nearly double the total from the 2016 primary.

Is Mr. Zeldin, who has closely aligned himself with the president, beatable in November?

Former Suffolk County legislator Kate Browning, who ran second in Tuesday’s primary, said Mr. Gershon must concentrate on issues critical to Democrats if he wants to win in November. 

“We have tax breaks for the wealthy, the Republicans are looking to attack Medicare, Social Security, and hurt the middle class,” she said Tuesday. “The middle class really needs to pay attention to what the Republicans are doing to them. Hopefully by November they will.”

In response to the primary results, the Zeldin for Congress committee adopted the Trumpian habit of giving opponents nicknames, calling Mr. Gershon “Park Avenue Perry” and saying he bought his way into the election. The committee described him as a “liberal Manhattan Democrat who has never voted here in a November election for Congress” and who only recently changed his residency from Manhattan to East Hampton so he could run.

Records show that, as of June 6, Mr. Gershon had spent $1,660,210 on the campaign, winning 7,226 votes on Tuesday.

In this district, East Hampton is far, far away — geographically, socially and economically — from places like Centereach, Selden, Shirley, Port Jefferson Station and Riverhead, and Mr. Gershon will likely face a Zeldin-inspired attack branding him as a carpetbagger who, away from his wealthy South Fork enclave, can’t relate to voters in the district. He will face an uphill battle just to convince voters that he is one of them. 

Nicholas Giordano, a political science professor at Suffolk County Community College, said Democrats are certainly winning the enthusiasm factor, but beating a Republican incumbent — and winning back the House — will be a high mountain to climb. 

“If you look at the 2018 results, over 23,000 Democrats voted,” he said. “Only 12,000 voted in 2016. So that enthusiasm will certainly help, and Mr. Zeldin has closely tied himself to President Trump.”

But what comes next, Mr. Giordano said, will be the real challenge. 

Democrats, he cautioned, “have to watch out with the rhetoric. You have a progressive wing versus establishment Democrats. We are more centrist Democrats here. This is where the Democrats have to be careful. If I were advising the winning candidate in this primary, he needs to stick to centrist principles.”

The professor’s point is that verbally abusing a Trump staffer eating in a restaurant or comparing Trump’s policies to the Nazis’ is likely the road to failure for the Democrats in November, as it will energize the GOP base to come out and vote in greater numbers.

All this, of course, is political guesswork at this point, as there are many factors still in play as to what will happen in November. We seem to be in uncharted territory right now, politically speaking, with increasingly ugly rhetoric flying about from both sides. Journalists covering Trump rallies are being verbally abused and even threatened as America’s biggest enemies, which is something very new and very concerning in America.

Now that the Democratic primary in the 1st District is over and the campaigning will begin, discussion of issues important to voters will hopefully dominate the airwaves and drown out the ugly attacks. But don’t count on it.

Cartoon by Peter Waldner