Parpan Column: Is Congressman Zeldin vulnerable in 2018?

03/04/2017 11:05 PM |

In 2009, shortly after New York State passed the ill-advised MTA payroll tax, I found myself in a conversation with a campaign staffer for former state Senator Brian Foley. Mr. Foley had voted in favor of the plan — which added a payroll tax to local businesses in an effort to balance the MTA budget — despite concerns from constituents across Suffolk County who felt they were underserved by the agency.

I remember asking the staffer if the senator was nervous about the impact the vote might have on the following year’s election.

He’s “bulletproof,” I was told. He’s just one of those candidates who “always wins” even if he doesn’t work as hard on the campaign trail, the staffer remarked.

The Democratic senator was only a few months into his first term in that particular office when he cast that vote, but I still felt it would cost him. What Mr. Foley hadn’t factored, in my estimation, was that he rode the wave of President Barack Obama into office. Posting an 18-point win over longtime incumbent Caesar Trunzo in 2008, he became the first Suffolk Democrat elected to the state Senate in 106 years.

In 2010, an energetic young Republican named Lee Zeldin called for a repeal of the MTA tax in his campaign — and he won in a landslide.

Mr. Zeldin, who had lost a congressional bid to Democrat Tim Bishop in 2008, has been a rising star in the Suffolk GOP ever since. He sacrificed his state Senate seat after just two terms for a chance to oppose Mr. Bishop again in 2014 and won convincingly.

Now in his second term and facing intense scrutiny from constituents for his support of President Donald Trump and his reluctance to host an in-person town hall, I found myself wondering if Mr. Zeldin is the same sort of Teflon candidate Mr. Foley was once believed to be.

Several times in recent weeks, I’ve been asked the same question: Is it possible that Lee Zeldin could lose his next election? While I’d say it’s probably a bit of a long shot at this early date, there’s certainly more of a chance he loses today than there was before the Trump inauguration.

A major reason I believe Mr. Zeldin could be more vulnerable than before is that he’s acting like a bulletproof candidate.

Refusing to host a real town hall meeting is certainly in line with a Republican trend across the country, but I don’t think it’s an approach his constituents agree with deep down. If you strip partisan politics from the conversation, do a majority of 1st District voters really agree that members of Congress shouldn’t host open public forums with their constituents? I can’t imagine that to be true.

It’s also important to remember Mr. Zeldin’s past pledges to work with constituents. In a 2014 campaign ad, he said: “We’re going to need to be able to work together to send a real message to Washington.”

He reaffirmed that commitment in a May 2016 video message pledging his support for then-candidate Trump. “If we want to chart out a better course for America after eight years of President Obama, we must do that together,” Mr. Zeldin said. “Unity. That is how we overcome the challenges before us.”

Fast-forward nine months to his party holding a majority in both chambers of Congress and a president in the White House — Mr. Zeldin is calling those who disagree with him “liberal obstructionists” and refusing to host a town hall. He has also declined to release the results of a recent poll question his office asked gauging satisfaction with his job performance, a telling fact he’d surely chalk up as alternative.

Mr. Zeldin’s behavior could help fuel opposition to his candidacy. At the moment, that resistance is best reflected in 2,000 district residents watching the congressman’s every move and critiquing him in the “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin” Facebook group.

The question is how much groups like this can affect voter turnout on Election Day, especially when the congressman won’t be up for re-election for another 20 months. Mr. Zeldin won in November by more than 50,000 votes, so the opposition certainly has a lot of ground to make up.

But the potential, in terms of both actual turnout and Democratic Party affiliation, is there. There also is recent precedent for a Democrat to win a midterm election in CD-1 during a Republican presidential administration, with Mr. Bishop winning in both 2002 and 2006.

One factor to consider is the massive increase in voter registration in the district in the past decade. In 2006, only 405,306 voters were enrolled here. That increased to 469,641 last year, with Republicans now outnumbering Democrats by only about 16,000 voters.

Dems are clearly winning the very long race to expand voter enrollment in the 1st District. Since 2009, Democratic enrollment is up 11 percent among Zeldin constituents, while GOP enrollment has increased by less than 1.8 percent.

If that same level of growth continued over the length of a possible eight-year Trump administration, Democrats will be close to a majority of CD-1 voters. That’s not even counting the potential for Trump’s actions to accelerate Democratic enrollment locally.

The key for 1st District Democrats will be to get those newly enrolled voters to actually show up on Election Day. The highest percentage of voter turnout in the district over the past 15 years came in 2010, when nearly 46 percent of voters turned up at the polls. That’s a significant statistic considering that’s also the first midterm of the last newly elected president.

That number dipped to 37 percent in the most recent midterm election in 2014. If more than 45 percent of registered 1st District voters show up in 2018, a non-presidential election year, Mr. Zeldin could be in trouble.

Grant ParpanThe author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group.

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