Suffolk Closeup: GOP primary postmortems

Lee Zeldin, left, and George Demos, right, both hope to appear opposite Congressman Tim Bishop on the ballot in November's election.
Lee Zeldin, left, and George Demos, right, both hope to appear opposite Congressman Tim Bishop on the ballot in November’s election.

It was one bitter Republican primary battle between Lee Zeldin and George Demos ending last month.  

When the smoke cleared, Mr. Zeldin, the GOP organization’s choice, handily won the nomination to run in the lst Congressional District. This despite Mr. Demos spending $2 million of his own money on the contest.

Now Mr. Zeldin, a state senator and attorney, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in Iraq and a major in the Army Reserves, a long-time resident of Shirley in Brookhaven Town —— the town with the largest population of any of the towns in the lst C.D.— will be facing six-term incumbent Tim Bishop, a Democrat from Southampton, previously provost of Southampton College.

The race pits a conservative Republican against a middle-of-the-road Democrat, a young (34-year-old) challenger in Mr. Zeldin against Mr. Bishop, who turned 64 last month, and although previously an academic administrator, has demonstrated strong political skills in his runs for the lst C.D. seat.

Indeed, Mr. Bishop and Mr. Zeldin ran against each other before in 2008 and Mr. Bishop trounced him by a wide percentage margin, 58-42. But Mr. Zeldin has the power of incumbency now, having, in turn, soundly defeated incumbent Democratic State Senator Brian X. Foley, 57-43, in 2010.

The lst C.D. includes the five East End towns of Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southold and Riverhead along with much of Smithtown and all of Brookhaven Town. The last federal census in 2010 found a population of 486,000 in Brookhaven. In comparison, Mr. Bishop’s hometown of Southampton numbered 56,000 people.

The national Republican Party is targeting the lst C.D. and considers Mr. Bishop vulnerable. Nothing new here, since the national GOP has gone after Mr. Bishop’s supposed vulnerability every time out. Large amounts of campaign money will be pouring into the district in the months before Election Day this year on November 4.

But before moving on to the general election, a look at what happened in the Republican primary fight is instructive, particularly considering the large amount of money spent by Mr. Demos. He outspent the Zeldin campaign three-to-one, and much of the $2.3 million Demos total — about $1.2 million — went for TV ad buys.

And they were some aggressive commercials! They insisted that Mr. Demos was the “conservative Republican” in the race and lambasted Mr. Zeldin for being a repeated supporter of higher state taxes and, despite Mr. Zeldin’s emphatic denial, a backer of Obamacare. To prove his conservative bona fides, Mr. Zeldin boasted of endorsements from former GOP Senator Rick Santorum as well as Senator John McCain,

Meanwhile, the Demos campaign featured ex-New York Governor George Pataki and ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani endorsing Mr. Demos. Mr. Giuliani announced that Mr. Demos, like himself a former prosecutor, “knows the good guys from the bad. He will rattle the cages of the establishment … And George would never support Obamacare.”

Now it’s unusual, but a few people have through the years taken on the Suffolk GOP in a primary, as did Mr. Demos, and won. A leading example is the late Suffolk Surrogate Ernest L. Signorelli of Quogue. In 1969, then a District Court judge, he mounted a successful primary battle for the GOP nomination to County Court, won and was elected. In 1985, when the GOP tried to dump him as surrogate, he took on the party’s choice and won again. Mr. Signorelli’s strength involved intense retail politics, constant appearances before community groups and a solid base of friends and fans.

Mr, Demos, young, like Mr. Zeldin (37), did well in almost getting the GOP nomination in the lst C.D. in 2010, beating out Christopher Nixon Cox of Westhampton, a grandson of Richard Nixon and son of the state GOP chairman. The nomination, however, was won by Randy Altschuler, who also spent $2 million of his own money in the primary contest.

Mr. Demos spent a fraction of that then, but this year he had wealth. In 2011, he met his wife, Chrysa, at a Greek Orthodox Church conference. Her father is multi-millionaire Sacramento, California real estate developer Angelo Tsakopoulos. He is a major funder of Democrats including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Yet he has fully embraced his conservative son-in law financially and in other ways. Mr. Demos grew up between New York City and Shelter Island, where his family has a vacation home. He now lives in Stony Brook.

Still, the money didn’t turn the primary trick. Among the factors contributing to his defeat was a low turn-out — 15,000 in a primary moved to June from what had been a usual September date. This gave a decided edge to the organization’s choice. And the negative tone of the race might have led some GOP voters to shun it.