GOP primary girds Lee Zeldin for tough battle with Tim Bishop

New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, left, campaigns

New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, left, campaigns a neighborhood in St. James on Sunday, June 8, 2014 while Congressman Tim Bishop, right, is shown at a press conference at Wickham's Fruit Farm in Cutchogue on Monday, May 12, 2014.

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State Sen. Lee Zeldin's solid victory in a GOP primary last week left him cash poor after fending off a multimillion-dollar onslaught of negative ads and mailers. But backers say it's given Zeldin momentum, a united party and girded him for what is likely to be a tougher rematch with six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop.

Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman, said Zeldin's trial by fire against well-financed challenger George Demos makes him "a rising star" nationwide. It will attract money to the race and give the GOP the best chance ever to unseat Bishop, Garcia said.

"I don't like primaries, but Lee demonstrated his character by taking an eight-month, $3 million assault on his shoulders," said Garcia. Garcia said Demos' attacks "really angered" rank-and-file party members and "has given every Republican a personal vested interest in this race."

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Democrats say the primary not only left Zeldin with little money, but forced him too far right for most of the voting public.

"A lot of damage was done," said Patrick Halpin, a former Democratic Suffolk County executive.

Halpin said the lengthy battle likely alienated many women and unaligned voters for the general election. "The last thing Republicans on Long Island needed was to have a vicious primary appealing to the far right," he said.

However, some political experts said Zeldin, a two-term incumbent with a political base in the district, is a far more formidable contender than he was in 2008 when Bishop beat him by 45,000 votes. They also note that the 1st District still tilts Republican even as the county is becoming increasingly Democratic.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said the primary proved Zeldin is "a captive to the tea party." He also minimized Zeldin's victory, noting the GOP turnout was only about 10 percent. "There's nothing to crow about here," said Schaffer, adding that Democrats' high-tech ground game and strong union backing will help Bishop win in November.

Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, a Republican, downplayed any lasting fallout for Zeldin from the primary.

"None of the people who voted for Demos are likely to vote for Bishop," said Romaine, adding the primary raised Zeldin's name recognition. Romaine said that Zeldin, a homegrown contender, has a big edge over past Bishop foes, who parachuted into the district to run. "If you ask Lee to name five local school superintendents or fire chiefs, he'd have no problem -- he knows the territory," Romaine said.

While the primary forced Zeldin to spend all but about $100,000 of the $734,5000 he had raised as of June 4, he was dialing for dollars the day after the primary, Garcia said.

"A lot of people sitting on the sidelines are now coming in," said Garcia, adding Zeldin has "plenty of time" to catch up by September when the campaign heats up. Bishop has $809,000 on hand, and House Democrats have reserved $1.4 million to pay for TV ads for him.

Wild cards include what could be a record level of independent spending on both sides, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's effort to run up big numbers for re-election, and the outcome of a House ethics investigation of Bishop's request for a campaign donation from a constituent he helped with a fireworks permit. Bishop denies he did anything wrong or illegal.

"This is going to be like World War I trench warfare," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican business lobbyist. "This is going to be a full frontal assault with unlimited ammo brought in by both sides."