Top Nassau Democrats are bracing for a potential primary in the race to replace retiring Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, even if they'd rather not see one.
"In all my time, I haven't seen a pretty primary," said county Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. "It's always easier not to have one but sometimes, that's not in my capacity."
While Nassau GOP leaders have yet to choose their candidate for the 4th Congressional District, Democrats have two well-known contenders.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, 48, of Garden City, announced her campaign last week and was endorsed by McCarthy (D-Mineola), who has held the seat since 1997.
Rice's decision prompted some potential Democratic candidates to back down, but Nassau legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams remains interested and is raising money to see if he can fund a primary run.
Should Abrahams, 39, of Freeport, declare his candidacy, Democrats will be forced to watch two top county officeholders wage an expensive and potentially bruising battle. Candidates for the congressional seat may have to spend more than $2.5 million, with at least $1 million of that needed for a primary, political analysts have said.
"I'd prefer not to see a primary, because, number one, it saps resources, and number two, it gives the other party material to work with," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which encouraged Rice to run. "But if there is a primary, which I hope there will not be, the candidates need to focus on stopping tea party extremists in Congress, and not running against each other."
Rice, who has $2 million left in her state campaign account after being elected to her third term as district attorney last fall, is a proven fundraiser and has Israel's committee's donor network behind her. While she can't use state funds in a federal race, the money can be transferred to committees allowed to give to House candidates.
Abrahams, who had $65,000 in his state account as of last fall, held his first fundraiser last week to benefit his federal committee. His spokesman, Jeff Guillot, wouldn't detail how much the lawmaker raised at the event, but acknowledged that the campaign was under a tight timeline to show "the Washington establishment" that it can compete.
"Kevan's exploratory campaign doesn't have the luxury of that much time," Guillot said, noting that nominating petitions to get on the June primary ballot can be distributed beginning March 4. "Therefore, it's our intention to be well on pace to reach our overall goal weeks in advance of the petitioning process, and that will ultimately play a large role in Kevan's decision to challenge the district attorney."
In an interview last week, Rice didn't address Abrahams by name, saying: "Primaries are tough, but I'm prepared if there's going to be a primary.
"These are neighborhoods that I've already been in over the past eight years, that I know well," Rice said of the congressional district, which covers central Nassau County and includes Republican strongholds such as Merrick and Bellmore. Hempstead, Uniondale and other communities, though, have significant Democratic registration.
Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College's School of Public Affairs, said Rice, as "the presumed front-runner," may escape a primary if the party establishment puts enough pressure on would-be challengers. "But that depends on who's out there and how much bucks they can raise," he said.
Israel, who backs Rice, first won his House seat in 2000 after winning a Democratic primary. Given that, he said he would be "the last person on earth" to try to dissuade Abrahams from running in June.
McCarthy, in endorsing Rice last week, said: "This was my choice, but I believe in the process to go forward. You fight for what you need to fight for, but I certainly wouldn't discourage . . . [a primary], nor have I talked to anyone about it."
Jacobs, who recently clashed with Rice over her handling of a politically charged election case last year, said he would avoid making an endorsement. "If there were no primary, I would be very happy to see Kathleen go to Congress," he said, noting he also admired Abrahams' "loyalty."
"And loyalty is a two-way street," Jacobs said, "so I'm certainly not going to do anything to hurry him along. He deserves every right to give this full consideration."