Rep. Lee Zeldin, the three-term Republican incumbent from Long Island, will face a Democratic challenger in November hoping to flip his swing district back to blue. But two days after the primary polls closed, it’s still not clear who that Democrat will be.
Three candidates are neck-and-neck in the Democratic primary for New York’s 1st Congressional District in Suffolk County as they vie for the chance to unseat Zeldin and flip the district. In most elections, the margins between the candidates – Perry Gershon, Nancy Goroff and Bridget Fleming – would be wide enough that a winner could be declared.
But in this pandemic primary, in which a potentially substantial number of absentee ballots cast have yet to be counted, this race is one of several that is too close to call. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented number of absentee ballots were requested for this week’s primary elections – more than 1.7 million across the state – and the process of counting those mailed-in ballots won’t begin until Wednesday, July 1.
In this race, Gershon, a businessman who ran and lost against Zeldin in 2018, leads the pack by only one point with 35% of the vote; Goroff, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook University, is just behind with 34% of the vote; and Fleming, a Suffolk County legislator, trails slightly with 27% of the vote. In a race in which only 14,808 ballots were cast in-person, Gershon’s 1% lead translates to only a 164-vote margin, making the race too close call without having the absentee ballots tallied as well. A fourth candidate, business consultant Gregory-John Fischer, is also running in the Democratic primary, though he lags far behind with only 322 votes, or 2%.
The closeness of the race has to do with the fact that neither Gershon, Goroff or Fleming stray too far from one another on the political spectrum, and all have some degree of name recognition. “I don’t think there’s a lot of daylight among them in terms of labels like ‘progressive,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘moderate,’” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.
In a moderate district like this one – which President Donald Trump won by 12 points in 2016 – candidates can talk about progressive credentials but may be wary of going too far left. “It clearly has a lot of Republicans, conservatives and right-leaning independents,” Levy said. “A Democrat who runs too far to the left in a primary, even if they win, could have a hard time getting back to the center to connect with the voters you need to win a general election.”
Gershon, the frontrunner when considering all ballots cast in person, is a businessman who dropped out of medical school to open a sports bar, before going on to run a commercial real estate private equity firm. As he did in his race against Zeldin in 2018 – which he lost by just 4 points – Gershon has drawn particular attention to Zeldin’s fervent support of Trump in what is a relatively moderate Republican district, appearing to cast the president as his opponent as much as Zeldin. “Zeldin is Trump's staunchest cheerleader in Congress and one of his biggest enablers,” Gershon said in a recent interview with Patch. “The Zeldin/Trump agenda is against healthcare in the time of COVID-19, is against environmental regulations when we know that climate change is real, and is against reform at a time when as a country we are uniting around racial justice.” Representatives for Gershon’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. As with his 2018 challenge, Gershon has raised and spent a considerable amount of money, with roughly $1.2 million raised and nearly $1 million of that spent by early June. Gershon has contributed roughly $1,600 to his own campaign.
Gershon has touted progressive positions including calls for police reform in the wake of protests against police brutality and systemic racism – an issue he’s highlighted as the most pressing the nation is facing right now – and has promised to fight for legislation banning chokeholds and increasing police transparency in Congress. He has also been endorsed by the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum and in the past spoken out in favor of the Green New Deal.
Goroff, a white Stony Brook resident and chemistry professor at Stony Brook University, doesn’t differ significantly from Gershon on the political spectrum. If Gershon has positioned himself as the “businessman” candidate, then Goroff has positioned herself as the “scientist” candidate, and climate change has been a key platform issue for her. “Our way of life on Long Island is threatened by extreme weather, coastal erosion, and sea level rise, all due to climate change,” she said in a recent interview with Patch. Goroff has also noted that she would be the first female PhD scientist in Congress. Representatives for Goroff's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Goroff enjoys an even larger campaign war chest than Gershon’s, with $2.3 million in funds, though that includes a $1 million loan she made to her own campaign.
Goroff is currently behind Gershon by fewer than 200 votes, while Bridget Fleming has more ground to make up. “In short, what we know right now about the results is that we don’t know very much,” Fleming wrote in an emailed statement. “But what we also know is this: Tuesday night, democracy shone bright here in Suffolk County. Tens of thousands of voters cast ballots for change; by mail, early, and in person, despite a global pandemic that’s confined us to our homes. As the votes are counted in the coming weeks, we believe we will emerge with the chance to prosecute that case against Lee Zeldin and I’m ready for it.”
Fleming, a white Hampton Bays resident, is running as the only candidate with experience in office, and has highlighted that distinction in speaking to her ability to take down Zeldin. Currently a Suffolk County legislator and a former member of the Southampton Town Board, Fleming notes that she has won against Republicans in five elections. “The candidate who we choose to go up against Lee Zeldin has to appeal not only to the far left but to the center, and even some Republican,” she said at a recent town hall. “And that is something I have done.”
Just like Goroff, Fleming has cited climate change as among the most pressing issues the country is facing, and has promised to fight for gun control reforms in Congress, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Fleming has also received a few high profile endorsements, including Cynthia Nixon, who ran to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s left in 2018, as well as Rep. Kathleen Rice, and labor endorsements including Local 1102 RWDSU and SEIU 1199.
And though Fleming will have to pick up more votes from absentee ballots in order to stay in the running, this race will be a nail-biter once the process of tabulating absentee ballots begins on July 1. When that begins, the Suffolk County Board of Elections may even replicate the frantic counting of ballots during the Queens district attorney race last year. “Every side is going to have their lawyers looking very carefully and I wouldn't be surprised if things remain so close that one candidate or another is going to start challenging ballots,” Levy said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a candidate that did not provide a comment for this story.
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