With the retirement of Carolyn McCarthy, voters in Nassau County's 4th Congressional District next month will elect a new representative for the first time in nearly 20 years.
They are choosing between Republican Bruce Blakeman, who touts his record as the Nassau County Legislature's first presiding officer and his opposition to "onerous" federal regulations, and Democrat Kathleen Rice, the Nassau district attorney who emphasizes her "political independence" and support for more college tuition relief.
The race for a rare open House seat on Long Island hasn't attracted the same attention or spending by national political groups as the competitive 1st District battle in Suffolk between Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).
Nonetheless, Rice and Blakeman have run aggressively to follow McCarthy (D-Mineola).
Blakeman, 59, of Long Beach, raised $1.2 million through Sept. 30, including a personal loan of $700,000, as he seeks his first elected job since 1999.
An attorney and consultant, Blakeman points to his votes to cut county spending while in the legislature. He also is focusing on national security, support for Israel and criticism of the Affordable Care Act, which he says he'd vote to repeal.
Rice, 49, of Garden City, raised $3.5 million through Sept. 30, according to reports filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission. She has been district attorney since 2006, and cites her record of toughening driving while intoxicated prosecutions by refusing plea deals in many cases.
In Congress, she said she'd work to protect women's reproductive rights and take up McCarthy's top issue: gun control.
On the campaign trail, both candidates highlight the economy and job creation as priorities, saying they have the best credentials to work with members of both parties to produce results for the diverse district.
While saying he could reach across the aisle, Blakeman is highly critical of Democratic President Barack Obama, who was viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of district voters in a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll conducted last month.
"He seems like a disinterested president and [Rice] hasn't criticized him on anything," Blakeman said Sunday while walking the Five Towns Community Chest Fair in Cedarhurst.
Blakeman cited Obama's initial response to Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, and to the recent Ebola virus crisis.
"A lot of people now are very concerned and afraid," about Obama's handling of such issues, Blakeman said.
At an appearance last week at the Sutton Place pub in Long Beach, Rice told several dozen people that if elected she would focus on issues important to local workers and employers. She said she backed raising the federal minimum wage, and reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which provides financing to businesses to sell goods overseas, but was recently subject to GOP calls for its elimination.
"Most of America is in the middle and they want their politicians and public servants to be there, too," Rice said to those gathered in the pub's backroom, noting that as district attorney, she has prosecuted numerous elected officials from her own party. "I think we need more politically independent people focused on solving problems."
The 4th District, which McCarthy has represented since 1997, covers 110 square miles in the central-southern portion of Nassau, including Westbury, Woodmere and Long Beach.
The district includes 205,698 registered Democrats, 171,404 Republicans and 109,038 nonaligned voters, according to the state Board of Elections.
Blakeman also is endorsed by the Conservative Party, which has 5,392 registered voters in the 4th, and the Independence Party, with an enrollment of 18,222. Rice is backed by the Working Families Party, which has 1,425 district voters.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Blakeman has the well-organized Nassau GOP behind him to get voters out. But Rice, Levy said, has shown an ability as district attorney to win over nonaligned voters and even Republicans in higher-than-expected numbers.
"This is a tough district for a Republican, especially when the candidate is running against a prolific vote-getter," Levy said. "But Blakeman still has assets that can help him close the gap, including the unpopularity of Barack Obama and some of his policies."
Rice has a fundraising advantage: As of Sept. 30, she had $1.5 million in cash on hand, compared with Blakeman's $530,000, according to figures the campaigns said they've reported to the FEC.
Blakeman has spent money on three television ads -- two of which attack Rice. The latest, released earlier this month, mocks the campaign issue featured in a Rice ad: texting while driving. Blakeman says featuring that issue over jobs or national security shows Rice's priorities are misplaced.
At Rice's Long Beach meet-and-greet last week, real estate appraiser Bob Studwell asked: "Your opponent has tried to paint you as a one-issue candidate. . . . What have you done to counter that perception?"
"It's been about every week that I have come out with different policy proposals," Rice replied. "Not just about texting and driving, but also on how important it was to reauthorize the import/export bank; how important it is to protect a woman's right to choose; how important it is not to force college kids to pay for continued subsidies for big oil.
"I've been very heavy on talking about my positions," she added. "Unfortunately, it has been met, in large part, with silence on my opponent's side."