First District Dilemma for Democratic Voters

Following a June 26 victory by Perry Gershon in the Democratic primary, the question in New York’s First Congressional District is how to find the right way forward. The issue crosses party lines: Representative Lee Zeldin, seeking a third term in the House, is an eager surrogate for President Trump, a fact that may turn off moderate Republican and Conservative Party voters. He has accepted the support of both Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, dangerous extremist ideologues from the far right.

Mr. Zeldin has been a cicada-like presence on the East End, appearing only now and then and only in the most carefully managed settings for photo-ops or rare off-the-record conversations, then slinking back to the bright comfort of television studios. This spring he did two hour-long segment on Fox, and in an interview told Newsday that he does two to three cable news appearances a week, often calling for a second special counsel to investigate the special counsel investigating the president's Russia ties.

For all Mr. Zeldin’s negatives, on paper, he retains a substantial advantage in the district, which stretches west to Shirley. Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats, and with minor, right-leaning party members, the advantage looks tough to get around. Nevertheless, the First District tends to swing left, then right again. Tim Bishop, a Democrat, served in Congress for more than a decade before Mr. Zeldin defeated him amid a puffed-up scandal concerning a private fireworks display.

Before Mr. Bishop, the affable Republican Felix Grucci held the seat for a term, almost by accident in a year in which the incumbent, Michael Forbes, was ousted in a Republican primary surprise. Before that, the Democrat George Hochbrueckner represented the First District from 1987 to 1994.

Polling nationwide this year has shown consistent advantages for Democrats and strong disapproval of President Trump, which make the hill Mr. Gershon has to climb to win a little less intimidating. Nonetheless, as of last week, the Cook Political Report still rated the First Congressional District “competitive” but “likely Republican” in the final tally, while other districts in New York State, ones Hillary Clinton took in 2016, are more likely Democratic victories. 

Of course, Mr. Zeldin’s statistical advantage may not help him in a year when enthusiasm will favor the opposition, but it does raise the question of whether Democratic donors and political activists might better achieve their aim of retaking the House by targeting races elsewhere.

With stakes as high as they are with President Trump in the White House, the challenge must be met on all sides. While First District liberals work to get out the vote here, they must also work doubly hard to flip more likely seats — toward a goal of 24 going from Republican to Democratic. This means that for every dollar donated locally, they should donate more broadly, and for every minute spent phone banking for Mr. Gershon, they should spend two minutes for candidates with better chances, at least according to political analysts. In New York, these Democrats include Max Rose in the 11th District, Antonio Delgado in the 19th, and Max Della Pia in the 22nd.

In any event, whether Mr. Zeldin can be retired from Congress is not all that important now. What is important is that a Democratic House of Representatives, and maybe the Senate, provide a material check on the authoritarians now running the United States government.