New York State

Democrats go on offense against four New York congressional Republicans

New York’s GOP is increasingly being forced to choose between their increasingly right-wing party and their relatively moderate districts thanks to the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Lee Zeldin.

Rep. Lee Zeldin. Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is building its voter mobilization operation for the 2020 elections and it plans to challenge 33 House Republicans, including four from the New York – the second highest number of targets of any state other than Texas. The targeted New Yorkers are Reps. Lee Zeldin, Peter King, John Katko and Chris Collins. While it’s unlikely Democrats could sweep all four from office, that would leave only two Republicans left in New York’s 27-member House delegation and none in the New York City metro area.

As part of the multi-million dollar “March Forward” campaign, which launched on March 7, the DCCC put boots on the ground in three out of four of their targeted districts in New York, building the campaign infrastructure for Democrats who will enter the race over the course of the next year. The Democratic committee bolsters campaigns primarily through fundraising, paying for targeted ads and throwing their influence behind candidates in high-profile or contentious races – to varying degrees of success. Last year’s “Red to Blue” campaign faced defeat in some primary races where the national group supported the establishment Democratic candidate and lost to a progressive insurgent. This was the case in Central New York, where Dana Balter defeated the DCCC-supported candidate, Juanita Perez Williams. Balter lost to Katko in the general election.

The four Republicans targeted in this cycle are not all especially vulnerable. In each case, their districts lean Republican. But the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has been advancing an agenda that threatens to paint New York’s GOP into a corner, forcing them to choose between their increasingly right-wing party and their relatively moderate districts.

Two controversial measures have already placed New York Republicans in a tight spot: the Democratic bill during the federal government shutdown to reopen the government without money for Trump’s border wall, and the For the People Act, a large anti-corruption bill that went to the floor on March 8. Democrats passed the ethics legislation in the House with zero Republican votes (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t plan to take it up in the Senate). House votes on prescription drug price reduction and infrastructure investment are also on the horizon. Democrats are sure to highlight Republican votes against any of these measures when challenging them in swing districts.

Healthcare and tax reform will be major campaign issues for Democrats. The DCCC plans to revisit New York Republicans’ support for the American Healthcare Act of 2017 – a Republican measure designed to repeal parts of Obamacare and to run hard against the tax hike many New Yorkers are facing because the Republicans’ tax overhaul limited deductions for state and local taxes. “New Yorkers are getting hit hard by higher taxes and increased health care costs thanks to the GOP’s agenda in Congress of giveaways to big corporations and the super wealthy,” said Mike Gwin, the regional press secretary for the DCCC, in an email. “That’s why the DCCC is making significant early investments in districts across New York to flip these seats.”

Are these initial New York GOP targets within reach? Here’s a rundown on what’s happening in their districts and where they stand on key issues.

Lee Zeldin, District 1

Zeldin, the third-term Republican representing eastern Long Island, could face another challenge from Perry Gershon, a progressive Democrat and real estate businessman whose race became so competitive that the DCCC upgraded the House seat from Tier 2 to a Tier 1 target in the “Red to Blue” midterm campaign. Gershon ultimately lost by only four points.The district, which includes most of Suffolk County – a wealthy area and home to the Hamptons – is Republican-leaning, but isn’t a safe Republican seat. Though the first district went for Trump by a 12-point margin in 2016, Obama narrowly carried it in 2012 and 2008. Zeldin, the most conservative Republican in the New York House delegation, seems sensitive to these dynamics, and has previously split with the GOP to align with his constituents. In 2017, he voted against the tax bill, the legislative baby of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who canceled a planned fundraiser for Zeldin following the vote. However, Zeldin is an avid supporter of Trump and has voted in support of his agenda on all but one measure in the current Congress. (Zeldin, a hawk on foreign policy, voted for a joint resolution that expressed disapproval of Trump’s plan to lift three Russia sanctions.) Zeldin could also face another Democratic challenger, such as former Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, who last time lost to Gershon by about 1,000 votes in the Democratic primary.

Pete King, District 2

Neighboring Zeldin’s district on Long Island, King, New York’s longest-serving Republican in Congress, is regularly ranked as one of the most bipartisan legislators. King, along with Zeldin and Collins, were among the subjects of a DCCC ad campaign in January that targeted Republicans who voted against ending the government shutdown without the requested border wall funding. Alternatively, King has been outspoken about reinstating the full state and local tax deduction, which was capped at $10,000 as part of the Republican tax bill. King voted against it because it adversely affected his constituents. Following a close call in the midterms, when Liuba Gretchen Shirley’s outsider campaign threatened King’s lead, he has voted with Democrats about 30 percent of the time this year – compared to about half that in the last Congress. Shirley ultimately fell short by 6 points, but she was an impressive candidate who made national headlines when she successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow use of campaign funds for child-care expenses. King, in his 14th term, is considered very popular in the district and was widely assumed to be invulnerable, but Shirley proved that status is tenuous in a blue wave; the nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the assessment of his seat from “solidly Republican” to “likely Republican” about two weeks ahead of the 2018 vote. If Shirley runs again, focusing on King’s AHCA vote, which eliminated popular protections for pre-existing conditions, the seat could be within her reach. However, if she doesn’t and Dems run another candidate like Suffolk County Legislator Duwayne Gregory – Shirley’s competition in the primary – King will probably be safe.

John Katko, District 24

Katko’s Syracuse-area district is one of three in the country that went to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and is still represented by a Republican, making the seat a ripe target for Democrats. Katko co-chairs the moderate Tuesday Group Caucus.During his first congressional campaign, in 2014, while seeking to flip a Democratic seat, Katko promised to pursue bipartisan reforms to Obamacare, keeping key pieces of the law. When Republicans promulgated their revisions in 2017, Katko was the only New York Republican to split with the party, saying the bill fell far short of his constituents’ expectations. Katko faced insurgent progressive Democrat Balter in the midterms, who the DCCC threw their support behind after she beat the establishment candidate in the primary. Balter, who received an endorsement from Barack Obama, raised record funds in the third quarter of the race in Syracuse, ultimately receiving more than three times the donations of Katko. But she went down to defeat by 5 points. The next time, the Democratic nominee could be her, or the nomination could go to a more moderate candidate like Perez Williams, who Balter bested by a wide margin in the primary.

Chris Collins, District 27

Collins’ Western New York seat, which he has occupied since 2013, became vulnerable after his arrest in August 2018 on charges of insider trading. He remained on the ballot, continuing his campaign, and ultimately won a fourth term by just over 1,000 votes – a stark contrast from 2016, when he won by a comfortable 30-plus point margin. (Collins’ trial is scheduled for Feb. 2020, and he denies all allegations.) Trump carried Collins’ district by more than 20 points in 2016, and the ultra-conservative congressman has supported the president on nearly every measure that’s come to a vote since Trump’s inauguration, voting with Trump on 99 percent of bills and resolutions in the last Congress and 100 percent in this cycle – the most of any New York Republican. The district would not be considered competitive if it weren’t represented by someone who is under indictment, and it probably won’t be if Collins vacates the seat and is replaced by another Republican. Collins campaigned last time by running a commercial that drew condemnation for its xenophobic, anti-Asian race-baiting and outright false claims about his Democratic opponent opponent Nate McMurray. Will such Trumpian tactics be enough to save Collins next time? McMurray said in his concession speech that he will campaign for the seat again when “the time is right,” which could occur before 2020, depending on Collins’ trial.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the 2020 elections as midterms.