Dual primaries allow for politicians' hedged bets

From left to right: New York State Senator

From left to right: New York State Senator Lee Zeldin and GOP primary candidate for U.S. Congressman George Demos. (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan, James Escher)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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New York's crazy election calendar, which sets federal and state primaries 2 1/2 months apart, is giving some ambitious politicians a unique chance to hedge their campaign risks.

One prime example could be found in Suffolk, where state Sen. Lee Zeldin faces a well-funded rival, attorney George Demos, in a Republican primary June 24 for the chance to challenge Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) on Election Day in November.

Should Zeldin (R-Shirley) lose in June, he'd still have time to circulate petitions and get on the ballot to run for a third term in the State Senate -- for which nominations are settled in September.

Not that Zeldin would rule it in or out when contacted.

"That's a hypothetical that I have been campaigning relentlessly to ensure never becomes a reality," Zeldin said Monday. His House campaign, he said, "is doing great. We're on pace to win in June, and November. We have a singular focus right now on winning the congressional seat."

Demos' campaign manager, Kevin Tschirhart, gives a contrary view, claiming Zeldin's congressional bid is "doomed" and that "everyone knows he will run for re-election to the State Senate."

Jumping from a loss in a congressional race to re-election in a state post has precedent. State Sen. Adriano Espaillat did just that two years ago when he lost a close Democratic primary contest to Rep. Charles Rangel. Now Espaillat, from Washington Heights, and one other Democratic candidate are due to face Rangel, from Harlem, again in June.

Should the challenger fall short again, will he opt for re-election? "We are confident in our broad coalition of grassroots support and we do not expect to have to face that decision," said Espaillat campaign spokeswoman Chelsea Connor.

Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder noted that petitioning for state legislative primaries runs this year from June 3 to July 10. That leaves a potential candidate 16 days after the June 24 federal primary to get the 500 valid signatures required for the Assembly or 1,000 for the Senate, he said. They could start earlier, he said, but that might pose strategic and legal problems. State primaries will be held Sept. 9.

Separate primary days began two years ago after a federal judge ruled the traditional combined September date came too late to give military personnel and other citizens overseas enough time under a new law to receive and return general-election ballots.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe ordered a June date for the 2012 federal primaries, the ones under his jurisdiction. He said the State Legislature was free to come up with an alternate, combined date for all primaries that met federal deadlines. But they failed to agree; Republicans wanted primary day in August and Democrats wanted it in June.

Two years later, lawmakers remained deadlocked on a unified primary date. So as in 2012, the federal party votes will be in June, state in September. Congressional candidates have already submitted their petitions.

In Central New York's 22nd Congressional District, Republican Rep. Richard Hanna (R-Barneveld) faces a primary challenge from two tea party-aligned candidates. One is Assemb. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford), who could choose to switch to re-election mode if she loses in June.

Politicians like their options. Having allowed bifurcated primaries twice, maybe Albany will keep them, even as it costs millions of extra public dollars.