2024 New York congressional battleground

Nancy Goroff wants another shot in the 1st District. John Avlon says he’s more viable.

The Democratic congressional primary will decide who challenges GOP Rep. Nick LaLota in the eastern Long Island district.

Nancy Goroff and John Avlon are competing in the June 25 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District.

Nancy Goroff and John Avlon are competing in the June 25 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District. Chris Ware/Newsday RM via Getty Images; Jason Mendez/Getty Images

Democrats Nancy Goroff and John Avlon are locked in a primary contest to determine who will take on first-term Rep. Nick LaLota in a Long Island district Republicans have held for nearly a decade. The stakes are high. The district, while currently considered “likely Republican” by election forecasters, has a history of rewarding moderation.

The 1st Congressional District encompasses Long Island’s eastern portion, including most of Suffolk County. It’s a fairly centrist district – one that both Goroff and Avlon believe is within the Democratic Party’s grasp. The district may have gotten slightly redder after the latest round of redistricting, but the candidates contend it remains a swing seat. They aren’t the only ones. The Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC wrote in a February memo that the district “remains one of the most competitive” in the country, bearing the potential for the PAC to pour a “substantial amount of resources” into the general election.

While former Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin secured 58% of the district’s gubernatorial vote to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 42% in 2022, the 2020 presidential election was far closer. Then-President Donald Trump won with 51% to Joe Biden’s 49% under the current boundaries. Of the district’s roughly 598,000 voters, Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans roughly 195,000 to 191,000, as of November 2023.

But first comes the June 25 Democratic primary. It’s Goroff’s second time running for the seat. A scientist, former professor and chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University, Goroff lost to Zeldin by nearly 10 points in 2020. It’s a fact that former CNN pundit Avlon has jumped on while trying to position himself as the best person to take on LaLota in the general election.

“The Democrats can’t afford to lose this fight, and they believe that I’m the Democrat who can win a general election,” Avlon said, pointing to the six out of eight Democratic town committees that endorsed him in the primary. “That’s no disrespect to any other candidate. Simply looking at the results of the race in the past, you can’t run nearly double digits behind ... in a swing district.”

Of course a lot has changed since 2020. Campaigning as a first-time candidate against a four-time incumbent during a global pandemic was far from ideal, according to Goroff. She told City & State that other factors have also changed – as has her approach. “The district is more Democratic than it was. Lee Zeldin is no longer on the ballot,” Goroff said, adding “People really don’t know Nick LaLota. His name ID is like 50%.”

She has poured her energy into a number of local causes over the past couple of years. After three conservative candidates backed by the group Save Our Schools won seats on the Smithtown Central School District board in 2021, Goroff helped start a local nonprofit called the Long Island Strong Schools Alliance to push back against “right-wing extremists” and to mobilize people to advocate for students and public schools. The local chapter of Planned Parenthood also honored her last year for her commitment to defending reproductive rights.

“When people asked Avlon why he was running he says, ‘Well I thought it was time to stop talking and start doing,’” she said. “I’m very proud of all the doing I’ve been doing for years. This isn’t new for me.”

Avlon told City & State he decided to run for office when he realized Donald Trump was going to be nominated by the Republican Party. He’d also been the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast and at one point in his mid-20s, a speech writer for then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I didn’t want to look at my kids later and say I could have done more when it mattered most,” Avlon said. “I realized there was a real chance to flip a swing seat. The district hasn’t been treated as a battleground even though it is, and I felt I could do something about that.”

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the district – while possible for Democrats to win – will take a “near-perfect storm of events” to fall into the party’s hands.

Still, he said, it makes sense that Goroff and Avlon are mounting such an aggressive challenge for the seat even if the district isn’t as competitive as registration enrollment and fundraising numbers suggest. Immigration, inflation, Israel and abortion are the issues that matter most to voters. Both are also running on similarly mainstream Democratic policy platforms, although Goroff leans slightly more progressive.

“You have two people who can raise money, who’ve been around the block in different ways – Goroff as a candidate in the past and Avlon as a media commentator that understands politics,” Levy said. “It could be a close primary. The question is whether it’ll matter who represents the Democrats. … Unless Goroff and Avlon are able to bring the various long-standing and ad hoc divisions in factions together, it’ll be a Pyrrhic victory in June.”

Avlon lived in Manhattan for many years, but bought a home in the Hamptons enclave of Sag Harbor in 2017 that he and his family used to rent for their vacations. Records show that LaLota currently lives in Amityville, just outside of the district. Goroff lives in Stony Brook, which is in the district.

Both candidates have raised about $1 million, although Avlon has brought in about $200,000 more than Goroff. Avlon’s edge widens when looking at cash on hand, as of March 31, with Avlon still having over $1 million while Goroff has $625,000.

Avlon has also amassed a swell of endorsements, including Reps. Tom Suozzi, Greg Meeks and Dan Goldman, former Rep. Max Rose, New York State United Teachers and state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs. Goroff has been endorsed by Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect Democratic women, 314 Action and others.

Levy said he thinks that “fair or not fair, Avlon has been able to get endorsements because he has struck mainstream party leaders as more of a moderate than Goroff.

“I think they went with the guy who kind of looks like a candidate out of central casting, has ties to national funders and doesn’t have a lot to be tarred with.”