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GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin draws potential challengers for 2016

New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, a rising

New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, a rising star in the conservative party, addresses the CPAC conference (Conservative Political Action Conference), March 8, 2014, at the Gaylord Conference Center at the National Harbor in Maryland. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

After only two months in office, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) already is attracting a line of potential challengers looking to take his seat away in 2016.

Former Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko, Suffolk Planning Commission chairman and venture capitalist David Calone, and Suffolk County Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) have been to Washington to speak with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"It's definitely not too early to start," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman. "Anyone who's interested needs to have started yesterday."

All three, however, were circumspect about their interest.

Lesko, who heads Accelerate Long Island, a nonprofit that works to commercialize research, declined to comment. Hahn, who faces re-election this year, said she was flattered her county work has been recognized but was focused only on her current job. Calone said he was nowhere close to making a decision about any candidacy.

But Schaffer said he is encouraged. He thinks freshman Zeldin will be vulnerable because he is too far to the right for the East End district, and that a large presidential turnout next year could hurt him. "As a commentator on Fox News, Lee's been more about the flash than substance and voters will pick on that," Schaffer said.

Zeldin, in his second bid for the 1st District seat, beat 12-year Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop by 15,313 votes in November. Democrats note that Zeldin won with only 94,035 votes in a race with 39 percent turnout -- far fewer than the 115,545 votes he received when he lost to Bishop in 2008 in a presidential election year. They note that Felix Grucci, the last Republican to win the seat, lost after one term to Bishop in a presidential year.

They also believe a Democratic challenger would be helped even more should former New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton head the party's national ticket.

Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven GOP chairman, discounted any spinoff impact. "Everyone fell for 'Hope and Change' and now are disillusioned," Garcia said of a Barack Obama campaign slogan. "People want a new direction."

Zeldin is a "strong voice" -- a pro-job, pro-family Republican "looking to protect the interest of Long Island," Garcia said.

Some Republicans warn that Zeldin must gird himself for another tough multimillion-dollar fight in a district that is one of the most competitive swing districts in the nation -- caroming back and forth between Republicans and Democrats a half-dozen times since 1960.

"If Hillary heads the ticket, she'll take New York like Grant took Richmond," said Desmond Ryan, a veteran GOP business lobbyist. "Lee's going to have to work hard to make himself accessible and visible, which will make him viable."

Other Republicans downplay the potential threat. They say Lesko has problems even with his own party because he exited the supervisor's job early, leaving behind fiscal problems. They criticize Hahn for putting forward "nanny state" bills such as one that would have forced county lifeguards to wear sunscreen. And they say Calone is little known and heads a county board that has little power and gets less attention.

Backers say all three Democrats have major assets. Lesko, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was a proven vote-getter in the district's largest town and can now tout his efforts to bring in high-tech businesses. Hahn is a strong progressive voice with a strong base in her North Shore district, they say, while Calone is a fresh face, has fundraising connections and a background as a former prosecutor.

Zeldin said he has "no opinion" about others' early interest in his seat.

"I'm focused on doing the job I was elected to. . . . There are some important issues facing our country and community and that's where my prime focus will remain," he said.

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