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Five ways the GOP wave touched Long Island on Election Day

The wave that swept Republicans into power in the U.S. Senate and grew their House majority was acutely felt on Long Island -- turning an expected close race into a GOP rout and a presumed comfortable Democratic win into a nail-biter.

Republican Lee Zeldin, predicted to be in a dogfight with six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop for the 1st Congressional District in Eastern Suffolk County, claimed victory by 10 percentage points, surprising political leaders and experts alike.

And Democrat Kathleen Rice, whose prolific fundraising and name recognition as Nassau district attorney made her the heavy favorite for the county's open 4th District seat, won by 5 percentage points over Republican Bruce Blakeman, who hasn't held elected office since 1999.

"A great red wave washed over the country, and certainly had an impact here on Long Island," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "It wasn't the only reason, but what happened on election night had a lot to do with President Obama's unpopularity."

Beyond the closely watched House races, national trends also probably affected races on the state and local level, including a Republican victory for Suffolk County comptroller and the party's as-yet-unofficial reclaiming of a competitive State Assembly seat in the Town of Brookhaven.

Democrats, meanwhile, endured the anti-Obama sentiment and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 1.2-percentage-point loss to Republican Rob Astorino in Suffolk County to win an open Assembly seat in southwestern Nassau County and a Long Beach judgeship.

"We're in the last years of a second-term president," said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer. "And just like we made a lot of local gains in '05, '06, '07 [in GOP President George W. Bush's final term], Republicans have taken advantage now. That's the roller coaster of politics."

ZELDIN/BISHOP

Zeldin was a little-known political newcomer when he lost to Bishop by 16 points in 2008, during Obama's first election.

Six years later, he ran as a two-term state senator with a record -- something experts said shouldn't be discounted as a reason he was able to unseat Bishop, an incumbent who had fended off previous challenges.

In 2010 and 2012, Bishop, of Southampton, was targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, but defeated businessman Randy Altschuler both times, including once by 593 votes. This year, outside GOP groups again poured money into the district.

"For the first time, Bishop had a bona fide challenge from an elected official," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works largely with Republicans. "But I don't think anyone predicted he'd lose by this much."

Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said Zeldin "certainly" benefited from the national GOP movement, "but the reality is, we haven't always caught that wave in the past."

"Two years ago, they really beat us in the street, as hard as we tried," LaValle said of local Democrats. "This year, we beat them at their own game, both technologically and with boots on the ground."

Schaffer said Bishop was hurt more by a district turnout of 35 percent, when 45 percent is normal for a governor's race.

"The governor underperforming helped contribute to our situation," Schaffer said Wednesday. "When our people don't show up, the issues are magnified."

RICE/BLAKEMAN

When Rice declared her candidacy to succeed 4th District Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), the third-term DA immediately became the front-runner.

In public polling, Rice never led Blakeman, an attorney and business consultant who was once presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, by less than 10 points. Her $3 million in fundraising dwarfed his totals, prompting him to put $1 million of his own money into his campaign. National Republicans largely stayed out of the district as they backed Zeldin.

But in recent weeks, Blakeman seized upon Obama's unpopularity and repeatedly tried to tie Rice to the president. He claimed momentum, and for a time Tuesday, it appeared an upset was within reach.

"Had the national party kicked in some money like they should have, Bruce would have had an even better chance and pulled this thing off," Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello lamented Wednesday. "The finances were terrible, and we had to keep fighting every day for money."

Rice said she never believed she'd win in a landslide, and framed her success amid the larger Democratic failure as an endorsement of her record: "Democrats suffered heavy losses elsewhere on Long Island, but I think we won because voters know I am not another partisan politician."

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs credited Rice with "succeeding in a very tough environment." He said he disagreed with the party strategy to run from Obama, calling it "a colossal mistake."

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who has worked for the state party, said: "Long Island was Ground Zero for Republicans, and it tells you that it's still an area susceptible to national trends."

KENNEDY/GAUGHRAN

A day after winning the Suffolk County comptroller's race over Democrat James Gaughran, county Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said he would fulfill his campaign promise to aggressively audit county spending, including by Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone.

But Kennedy said he recognized the countywide role is different from his current job: "I have to shed my penchant for the verbal jab. That doesn't mean I'm going to be any less critical. I will go where the audits lead to find inefficiencies and improper uses of money."

Kennedy said he spent about $100,000 on his election bid. Gaughran, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, and the county Democratic Party spent $800,000 on the race, Schaffer said.

"Once the political rhetoric is back in the bookcases, he'll do a professional job he was elected to do," Schaffer said. "Otherwise, he knows he'll be called on it."

Bellone, in an interview, added, "John has been head of the opposition party. It comes with certain responsibilities, and he has filled that role well. Now in the executive branch, this is a different function."

Kennedy was still fuming about campaign attacks from Democrats on his wife's employment as a legislative aide.

"They elected to run a vicious, heinous attack, full of lies. Many, many people were offended," Kennedy said.

HENNESSEY/MURRAY

Third District Assemb. Edward Hennessey (D-Medford) wouldn't concede Wednesday to Republican Dean Murray, though Democratic officials said they weren't confident that the lead could be flipped.

Murray leads Hennessey by more than 600 votes, but another 1,023 paper ballots remained to be counted, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections.

"We're going to let the process unfold," Hennessey said. The paper ballots are expected to be counted within seven to 10 days, election officials said.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Murray said in an interview late Wednesday. "Looking at the numbers and what's out there, I'm comfortable I'm going to hold the lead and possibly even expand it a little bit."

The race was most notable for the GPS tracking device found underneath Hennessey's car, placed there by a private investigator hired by GOP officials. Hennessey sent mail and produced television ads attacking Murray for supporting the tactics, which he said crossed the line of decency.

Hennessey narrowly defeated Murray in 2012 by 226 votes.

LONG BEACH RACES

Newly elected Democratic state Assemb. Todd Kaminsky will take over for the retiring Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), who represented the 20th district for a quarter-century.

Kaminsky defeated Republican challenger Avi Fertig by nearly 3,000 votes, or 9 percent of the 30,000 ballots cast.

Kaminsky, 36, said he can energize the statehouse with a fresh perspective after years as a federal prosecutor trying public corruption cases. His election was one of few bright spots for local Democrats.

"I know I have big shoes to fill and I think people are excited to have a young, energetic leader in Albany," Kaminsky of Long Beach said Wednesday.

Representing the district that covers Long Beach and South Shore communities such as Island Park and Oceanside, Kaminsky said he will focus on improving infrastructure and future storm preparation.

Also in Long Beach, Democratic City Attorney Corey Klein defeated GOP challenger Ted Hommel for a 10-year term as City Court judge. Klein replaced retiring Judge Roy Tepper, who was re-elected to a 10-year term last year, but is forced to retire in December because he turned 70.

With David M. Schwartz and John Asbury

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