In more than a dozen years as Nassau County's Democratic leader, Jay Jacobs can't recall ever sitting out a primary.
But he hasn't had a race like the one for the seat of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), who will retire at year's end.
The candidates in the June 24 Democratic primary in the 4th Congressional District -- Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice and county legislature Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams of Freeport -- are the party's top elected officeholders. In almost any other case, either would expect the party's clear endorsement.
"One of them isn't going to win, so if we take a position, that's the one who's going to be unhappy with us," Jacobs said. "I don't see any benefit to it."
Political analysts and the Democratic and Republican leaders in both Nassau and Suffolk say it is very unusual for a party chairman to stay neutral in such a high-profile race.
Both candidates strong
Typically, primaries pit the party's favorite against an outsider. That's the case with the 4th District's GOP primary, in which former Nassau legislative Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman has party backing versus attorney Frank Scaturro.
Rice has been the pick of national Democrats since McCarthy announced in January that she wouldn't seek a 10th term.
Abrahams, however, said he long had thought about running for McCarthy's seat when she retired and didn't back down even after McCarthy and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed Rice upon her formal entrance.
That left Jacobs with a difficult choice between his two most prominent officeholders.
Jacobs has told Democratic executive committee members that he will not back either Rice or Abrahams or hold a committee vote on the matter.
While Jacobs criticized Rice last year for not filing criminal charges against former Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale in a political influence case, he said the issue didn't factor into his decision-making.
"I respect his decision," Abrahams said of Jacobs. "No one likes primaries, and obviously, they can work in a way where they're a drain on party resources. But they're also significant, because we live in a democracy and people should be able to elect who they want."
Rice spokesman Eric Phillips said "the neutrality of a local party official hasn't had an ounce of impact" on Rice's bid.
"She has an unrivaled network of grassroots and financial support, she's the most popular Democrat in the county and she has a history of independence that allows her to succeed separate and beyond any party official's impact," he said.
Unusual to sit races out
Local political chairmen said they could think of no more than a handful of cases in which they sat out primaries.
Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello "almost always endorses somebody," said his spokesman, Tony Santino.
Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle was neutral in the 2010 Republican primary in the 1st Congressional District. Businessman Randy Altschuler defeated Christopher Cox, son of state GOP chairman Ed Cox, and former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney George Demos. Altschuler ultimately lost to incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).
In 2012, LaValle backed Altschuler over Demos in another 1st District primary, and in this year's GOP primary to take on Bishop, LaValle and other Suffolk GOP leaders are behind State Sen. Lee Zeldin, of Shirley, who is running against Demos.
"Political leaders can only go so far," LaValle said. "You do your best to make peace and get everyone on the same page. But when it doesn't happen, and you have two sitting elected officials who are important to you, it's probably wise to step back and let them go at it."
Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer recalled sitting out no more than five primaries in 14 years. "I don't envy Jay," he said of Jacobs. "It's definitely not ordinary."
Political analysts said party leaders almost always can negotiate with potential, high-profile candidates to get one to back down. But Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the 4th District presents an uncommon opportunity.
"This is a case where you have both an open and competitive seat, which is rare," Levy said. "When you have that, people consider it worth their time, and even careers."
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National committeeman from Great Neck, who is backing Rice, said that despite Jacobs sitting out the race, Rice is "being embraced by both national and Nassau Democrats."
But Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said the chairman was "wise" to stay out of the race.
"Why make enemies when you don't need to?" he said.