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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

The Bellwether: Key Congressional races on Long Island

Two races in NYC’s backyard may hold some clues to the midterms in November.

The Bellwether is an election season podcast.

The Bellwether is an election season podcast. Photo Credit: Illustration by Matt Davies

Midterm elections are less than a month away. Democrats look to net 23 seats to flip the House of Representatives, which would give them a kind of foothold in the federal government that hasn’t existed in the Trump era. With control of the gavel, they could stymie Republican legislative priorities and have more oversight over President Donald Trump and his executive branch. So Democrats around the nation are zeroing in on vulnerable districts where challengers have a strong opportunity to take down Republican incumbents.

Fed-up liberals in New York are donating and Facebooking about Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign in Texas or hopping on buses to New Jersey or Pennsylvania to check out well-documented swing districts.

But two potentially vulnerable Republicans are on the same land mass as Brooklyn and Queens. That’s New York’s 1st and 2nd congressional districts on Long Island, both territories that Trump won but where for different reasons a blue wave might be threatening.

Didn’t know about it? You’re in luck. Tune in to Newsday’s new podcast “The Bellwether” from now until Election Day, which follows Republicans Pete King and Lee Zeldin and their Democratic challengers Liuba Grechen Shirley and Perry Gershon.

Two different strands of national politics

In CD2, King is a GOP fixture who is seeking his 14th term in Congress, been chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and has had close ties with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the Clintons. He has a reputation as a fighter for NY interests with wins on the Zadroga Act for 9/11 first responders and Superstorm Sandy recovery, not to mention a deep warchest that make this an uphill battle for any challenger.

But it’s not a good year to run against a woman, particularly a newcomer running an energetic campaign. Grechen Shirley, a former consultant who worked in economic development and grew up in the district, has raised more than King’s last five challengers combined. At 37 years old, she’s half King’s age, and her run is forcing some of King’s history out into the open, including votes to defund Planned Parenthood and against abortion rights.

It’s an uphill battle, but the loss of a Republican of King’s stature would be similar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning June primary win in Queens and the Bronx.

Out East

In CD1, military veteran Zeldin has attached himself in various ways to Trump.

This makes sense in Suffolk County, all the way on the eastern edge of Long Island, where Trump found some of his most devoted constituents. Zeldin has mirrored this base by rallying with former Trump aides like Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer, and defending Trump against parts of the Russia investigation.

Zeldin’s opponent is Perry Gershon, a newcomer with a background in commercial real estate lending who has homes in East Hampton and also on 94th Street between Park and Lexington in Manhattan. Needless to say that second one’s not in the district, and Gershon only registered to vote in Suffolk County last year.

But some polling shows a tight race, with Gershon having a chance to overcome his new-to-town reputation: perhaps because some real segment of Suffolk County voters are now energized about and annoyed with Trump.

The Bellwether

So on the one hand you have a woman running against a party stalwart in what may turn into another Year of the Woman; and next door, a congressman who will see how the Trump trade winds blow.

It’s all happening right in NYC’s backyard, and these LI races are more tied to the city than you’d think. Some New Yorkers and campaign staff are hopping on the Long Island Rail Road to campaign on weekends, and the candidates are reverse commuting for fundraising in Brooklyn and beyond.

And overall, Long Island may prove to be a bellwether for which way Congress will turn in November. Which is something that city residents of all stripes care about, too.

Stay tuned by subscribing or listening online.

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