At Brookhaven Republicans' holiday fundraiser last week, state Sen. Lee Zeldin led the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence for the military and their families. Town GOP leader Jesse Garcia then touted him as a "tested and proven" candidate to win back the 1st Congressional District, which Democrats have held since 2003.
In the crowd of 350 was another 1st District contender, George Demos. He was given no chance to speak, and expected none.
"This is the year of the outsider," said Demos, who ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary in 2010. "We may not have the support of the party bosses but we have the support of the grassroots."
While Election Day is 11 months away, Zeldin and Demos, both attorneys, already are in combat mode in what is likely to be a multimillion-dollar GOP primary. The battle is starting now because federal courts have ordered June primaries for local federal races rather than September contests to ensure military ballots can be counted.
Demos, 37, who has reported $1 million in his coffers, last week launched a cable TV blitz. The ads feature Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), President Barack Obama and admitted cocaine user Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as a narrator asks, "Tired of Politics?" On Tuesday, Demos has scheduled a $1,000-a-head fundraiser in Manhattan headlined by former Gov. George Pataki.
Zeldin, 33, a two-term lawmaker from Shirley, is seeking a rematch with Bishop. He has lined up the support of much of the political establishment, including Pataki's mentor, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Sen. John McCain, state GOP chairman Edward Cox and state Conservative leader Michael Long, along with local GOP and Conservative leaders and party workers.
"I have an amazing, dedicated army of 200 volunteers and constituents who trust me and have asked me to be their voice, to fight for them," he said.
Both see Bishop, an 11-year incumbent, as vulnerable in the face of an ongoing House probe over his fundraising and potential backlash over the rocky rollout of Obamacare, issues Bishop backers expect to fade by next year.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said a primary will eat up GOP resources and tar both candidates.
"It will show them for what they are -- tea party activists who are too far to the right and willing to crash the economy for their cause," Schaffer said.
Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said Zeldin's assets include his Senate post, which gives him a base in the congressional district, his opposition to the unpopular MTA payroll tax and his original upset race over former state Sen. Brian Foley, a veteran Democratic official.
However, critics question whether Zeldin will be able to raise needed campaign cash without the GOP Senate fundraising machine. Backers say he raised $800,000 in his last race.
Dawidziak said that Demos' money and experience in a past congressional primary also cannot be ignored. "You can never take a million dollars lightly," Dawidziak said.
Demos made a surprisingly strong showing in the 2010 primary, getting 30 percent of the vote to come in second to businessman Randy Altschuler, but outpolling president Nixon's grandson Chris Cox.
Garcia says Demos' campaign money comes from his father-in-law, Angelo Tasdakopoulos, a West Coast developer who has backed Democrats including Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Demos said his campaign money belongs to his wife and himself and declined further comment.
Bishop, meanwhile, remained clear of the fray. "I'm focused on doing my job," he said. "But . . . I look forward to running against whoever comes out of what is shaping up to be an ugly primary."