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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Demos, Zeldin battle for GOP slot in congressional race

From left to right: New York State Senator

From left to right: New York State Senator Lee Zeldin and GOP primary candidate for U.S. Congressman George Demos. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan, James Escher

It's a classic confrontation -- an air war against an army of boots on the ground.

But the battlefield is not Ukraine or Afghanistan; it's the contest for the hearts and souls of Republican voters in eastern Suffolk's 1st Congressional District in the June 24 primary. The winner will take on Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in November.

On one side, challenger George Demos, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer with $2 million in self-funding, has already spent nearly $816,000 -- most of it on cable TV buys since late last year, backed up by eight mailings so far with all-star endorsements from GOP stars Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki. He has also repeatedly assailed what he says were his opponent's votes on Obamacare.

On the other side, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has both the strong GOP and Conservative backing, is counting on his name recognition built up over the past three years in office, his record in Albany opposing the MTA payroll tax and the nearly 1,000 rank-and-file committee members who can help turn out supporters in what overall is usually a small primary turnout.

So far, Zeldin has spent just $157,000 of his $671,000 cache -- enough for two mailings and some limited radio and cable time, leaving him $410,000 -- compared with Demos' $1.27 million going to into the race's final 10 weeks.

Zeldin has dubbed Demos' relentless attacks on him as the "lie of the week," claiming Demos "is under the false assumption that if he presents his own misinterpretation of . . . state budget documents, Long Island Republicans will take his word at face value."

Demos has maintained that Zeldin has twice voted for a state budget that included funding for Obamacare. Zeldin said he strongly opposes Obamacare and that the state budget only includes federal funds that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo accepted by executive order.

Demos said this year's budget also included $24.3 million in state spending for Obamacare. But Zeldin said the claim is "entirely false" and the budget only contains a reappropriation of $3.5 million in funding dating back to 2011.

Demos said Zeldin should have voted no on the budget and makes no apologies for his attacks. "I've learned a lot running against the establishment," Demos said. "The most important thing is to bypass the party bosses and directly reach the voters."

Demos made a better than expected showing in the 2010 GOP primary, garnering 30 percent of the vote, beating President Richard Nixon's grandson Christopher Cox, but losing to millionaire Randy Altschuler. Turnout was just 17 percent.

Paul Sabatino, former Suffolk chief deputy county executive, said that while Zeldin has the edge as the incumbent and party backing, Demos' early spending "has allowed him to frame the debate and put doubt in people's minds" while putting Zeldin on the defensive over Obamacare. "Who's going to win is an open question," Sabatino said.

However, veteran Republican lobbyist Desmond Ryan said Demos' self-funding may backfire. "Sometimes money a campaign does not make, if it looks like you're buying the election," he said. Zeldin, he added, is a proven vote-getter and is "saving his resources for the final 10 days." The key, he added, is whether Zeldin can rally a last-minute push to get out the vote.

Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven GOP chairman, who has already labeled Demos a carpetbagger whose money comes from his father-in-law, a major Democratic donor, has escalated his attacks, saying Demos is only renting his house and is missing in action on the campaign stump.

"He's not knocking on doors, showing up at shopping centers . . . like four years ago," he said. "It's nothing but a Trojan horse campaign to dissipate our resources and help Bishop." Garcia added that Demos' ad blitz has only angered and energized GOP ranks.

But Kevin Tschirhart, Demos' campaign manager, said these attacks show the party is worried. "Desperate campaigns say weird things," he said. "It's awfully strange to suggest that a candidate running for Congress isn't campaigning for Congress."

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