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'Ground game critical' in 1st District Bishop, Zeldin race

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014 challenger State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Credit: James Escher

After a two-month barrage of negative mail and TV ads, the tight 1st District congressional race between veteran Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop and GOP state Sen. Lee Zeldin is about to be settled in the street.

"In a race as close as this, the ground game is critical," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works primarily for Republicans. "Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, they'll be doing all they can to drag people out . . . because everything is hanging in the balance."

In the last off-year race, in 2010, Bishop won by 593 votes after a lengthy recount.

For months, Republicans and Democrats behind the scenes have been making calls and knocking on doors to identify likely supporters, and making follow-up contacts with undecideds to seek their votes. Republicans say they have 100 phones working each night, while Democrats say they have 100 to 150, also making calls nightly.

"We made our 1,000,000th voter contact last night," Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said. It was a party record in the district, with 800,000 the previous best, Schaffer said.

On Election Day Tuesday, backers of Bishop, of Southampton, and Zeldin, of Shirley, will go back to those identified as supporters to ensure they come out and vote. As the day goes on, party activists will regularly check polling places to check on stragglers who have not shown up so they can be revisited. Republicans expect to have up to 400 activists on the street, while Democrats expect 1,000, many from local unions.

Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman, said the town party has ordered about 50 iPads so party volunteers can be updated immediately about who has voted and who still needs to be reached.

"We've been working since the day after the June primary, having committee members doing double duty getting petition signatures and identifying supporters," Garcia said.

The local party also has joined with the state GOP for the first time in a coordinated drive to encourage absentee voters, Garcia said. Elections officials say 4,449 Republicans have requested absentee ballots and Democrats have requested 4,119. Another 2,231 nonaligned voters have gotten absentee ballots.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats will say how many supporters they are targeting. But among them are people who do not usually vote in off-year elections, new voters, those with a strong interest in issues including women's rights and the Common Core curriculum and those who want to protect gun rights or tighten gun control.

What makes grassroots efforts so important is that off-year turnout is only likely to be about 45 percent of the district's 442,000 voters -- almost 20 percent less than in presidential years. That means the candidate who can capture about a quarter of the voting population can win.

Since 2010, local Democrats have been using computerized data to help target likely supporters based on factors such as the magazines they subscribe to and charitable donations they make. The party also uses paid canvassers to supplement party volunteers and union backers.

That has helped Bishop, 64, a 12-year incumbent, survive even though registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 151,911 to 131,744. There also are 117,768 unaligned voters. But Zeldin, 34, who lost to Bishop six years ago as a first-time candidate, has more name recognition now as a two-term Albany incumbent.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman, said Bishop is hampered by President Barack Obama's unpopularity; Garcia said grassroots Republicans were energized by Zeldin's GOP primary victory over George Demos in June.

"They trust Lee, they've seen him the job, and watched him grow up," Garcia said "They're invested in his race."

Schaffer said the primary hurt Zeldin because it depleted his resources and moved him too far right to win Tuesday in the moderate district.

"Everyone recognizes Tim puts his heart and soul into the job and people want to help because they know what's at stake," said Schaffer.

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