Rep. Timothy H. Bishop's re-election has once again surged to the top of the cycle's list of most competitive House races, and Republicans are more optimistic than ever they can defeat the battle-tested New York Democrat.
This cycle features a rematch between Bishop and his 2008 opponent, state Sen. Lee Zeldin, the GOP nominee. Strategists have said internal polling shows the race in a dead heat, and this week, the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call changed the rating of the race to Tossup .
“There’s no such thing as an easy race in New York 1,” Bishop said last week in an interview. “In 2008, very few people knew [Zeldin] at all. He is more well known than he was in 2008, so to that extent, the race is different.” New York City casts a long shadow over diverse communities in the 1st District, which includes the Eastern end of Long Island. From the small fishing towns to the Hamptons, candidates reach voters via the city's pricey broadcast and cable television airwaves.
But in the country's most expensive media market, money for television advertising can only take a candidate so far.
“They’re all over the airwaves," said John J. Lavalle, chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Party. “They’re in our mailbox every other day. They’re on the radio. There are ground troops in the street — it’s an all out battle.”
Parties and groups have made nearly $8.7 million in independent expenditures for the race, according to online reports from the Federal Election Commission. The Empire State plays host to a handful of competitive House races, but more than a third of New York's independent expenditures for cycle have gone to the 1st District.
So far this cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $1.5 million on television, while an allied super PAC, House Majority PAC, has spent $500,000. Bishop has spent $753,000 on ads in the district.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $1.75 million on the race, while its ally, American Action Network, has spent $1.05 million. Zeldin spent $150,000.
“Voters in the district are numb to it at this point,” said Rich Schaffer, Lavalle’s Democratic counterpart in Suffolk County. “I think it pales in comparison to what was spent the last two cycles."
Republicans have a slight voter registration advantage in the district. But the Democrat has successfully defended his seat for over a decade, sometimes in unfavorable cycles for Bishop's party. For example, in 2010, Bishop survived a cycle that favored Republicans nationwide and won re-election by 593 votes.
In 2012, he won to re-election by 5 points despite brewing allegations of ethics violations. The House Ethics Committee later investigated whether Bishop used his public office to get a fireworks permit for a constituent's bar mitzvah, and then requested a campaign contribution from the constituent.
Bishop outperformed President Barack Obama, who also won the district, in both 2008 and 2012.
Zeldin, an Iraq War veteran, lost to Bishop by more than 16 percent in 2008 before successfully seeking the state Senate two years later. This cycle, Zeldin said he thinks that his added experience in the Legislature helps his case.
“It’s an area that, historically, the incumbent has crushed his opposition,” Zeldin said in an Oct. 17 interview. “But that’s definitely not going to work that way this time around.”
Both candidates have dug out positions that are anything but ground-breaking for their respective parties. All the while, they've attacked each other for being partisan loyalists.
“Things are not functioning well right now in Washington because, quite candidly, we have people in office like the president whose only version of compromise is to have it his way 100 percent of the time,” Zeldin said.
Bishop says Zeldin is too extreme for the district's voters, and that his promises of bipartisan progress are disingenuous.
“This is a guy who brought Allen West to be the keynote speaker at his campaign kick-off rally,” Bishop said. “That doesn’t sound like the guy who is going to go to Washington and try to heal the divide.”
But a week before Election Day, it's not completely clear which candidate has the edge.
Bishop has had years to develop a successful turnout operation. But Zeldin's campaign has shown unprecedented promise for Republicans in the 1st District. He defeated his primary opponent, George Demos, who outspent him three-to-one, by 24 points.
Either way, the candidates aren’t risking a single vote.
“If we come across a couple of our opponents’ supporters, we’ll encourage them to come out November 4th as well,” Zeldin said, then reconsidered. “By the way, we don’t actually... I was just joking around.”
The race is rated Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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