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Democrats heartened by LI congressional primary turnout

Democratic congressional candidate Perry Gershon before a debate

Democratic congressional candidate Perry Gershon before a debate in Patchogue on April 17, 2018. Credit: James Escher

A surge in Democratic voters pushed Perry Gershon to his party’s nomination on Tuesday, stoking hopes among Democrats for November, while Liuba Grechen Shirley dealt a blow to the Suffolk political establishment.

Nearly twice as many voters turned out for the five-way 1st Congressional District  primary compared to 2016, and East Hampton businessman Gershon took 36 percent of the vote. His next nearest challenger, former Suffolk Legis. Kate Browning, took 30 percent. Gershon will face two-term Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Out of 144,470 eligible voters, 20,303 voters turned out on Tuesday — 14.10 percent of voters, according to unofficial Suffolk board of elections returns. In the 1st District primary in 2016, 10,863 out of 136,464 voters turned out, or 7.96 percent. The figures don't include absentee ballots for either year, because ballots are still coming in through the mail.

In the 2nd Congressional District, Grechen Shirley defeated DuWayne Gregory, the Suffolk Legislature’s presiding officer, who had been endorsed by Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer. She will face Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford.) .

Turnout in that race was 7.51 percent on Election Day. Though there was no recent Democratic primary in the district to compare it with, Grechen Shirley had fashioned her campaign as a challenge to Suffolk's political establishment.

"This is a win for the grassroots," she said in an interview Wednesday morning. 

Gershon said he was encouraged by Democratic turnout. "There's a lot of energy in the Democratic Party and a desire to defeat Lee Zeldin in the fall," he said.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, called the 1st District turnout "a sign of energy on the Democratic side. It’s not necessarily predictive of the outcome in November, but it means more Democrats than in any recent time are paying attention and excited about getting behind a candidate of their party."

Both Zeldin and King cruised to comfortable victories in 2016.

Shortly after Gershon declared victory Tuesday night, Zeldin on social media labeled him "Park Avenue Perry" for moving his registration from Manhattan to his family's East Hampton home last year to run for Congress.

Republican chairman John Jay LaValle said Gershon "purchased the Democrat Party nomination for Congress" by spending $250 per vote.

King said he didn't believe the 2nd District turnout "was that great," but said, "I'm sure everyone will be energized by Election Day."

He added, "I'm not running against her. I'm running on my own record, and I'm proud to run on it."

Grechen Shirley challenged King to five debates at a press conference outside his Massapequa office Wednesday morning.

Grechen Shirley launched a progressive activist group after the election of President Donald Trump, when she expressed frustration that the Suffolk Democratic Party should have done more to push back against the administration. Both before and during the campaign she directly took on Schaffer, the longtime head of Suffolk Democratic politics, calling party leadership “corrupt” for cross endorsement deals. 

Her supporters said her campaign tapped into a surge of activists outside the party loyalists who typically show up in primary elections.

Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs, who did not endorse in the primaries, said progressive activists are agitating against party leadership, noting the defeat Tuesday of Queens Democratic chairman and Rep. Joe Crowley by 28-year-old first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"There is a strong activist base now that sees the establishment, sees the leadership as the enemy," Jacobs said. "There’s no question there’s something there."

At the end of the day, though, he said, Democrats had to come together: "Are we winning against Republicans and are we bringing about legislative results that the people are interested in? Everything else is just a sideshow."

Schaffer, who endorsed Gregory but remained neutral in the 1st District race, noted that Gershon and Grechen Shirley were able to significantly outraise their opponents.

But he said any use of primary turnout to predict a Democratic wave should be viewed with caution. "I don't want anyone to get complacent. We have to run like we're 5 points down and they're running against Republicans with institutional support," he said.

He credited Grechen Shirley with using her money to "create an enthusiasm among the progressive groups."

But, he said, "the way we're going to win [in the general election] is appeal to independents and soft Republican women."

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