Rep. Lee Zeldin has closely embraced President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election, banking that the president will remain popular in Zeldin's eastern Suffolk district and help motivate Republicans to vote, political analysts said.
Zeldin (R-Shirley) is seeking a third term against Democrat Perry Gershon in a year when national Democrats hope dissatisfaction with Trump, a Republican, will fuel a Democratic takeover of the House.
Zeldin has shown few concerns about a blue wave in November, often taking stances in line with those of the fiercest Trump partisans.
Zeldin has criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He has sponsored legislation to create a second special counsel to investigate the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.
And he appeared with former administration figures such as former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, moves that have enflamed Democratic activists.
“He’s hitched his wagon to Donald Trump with cast iron,” said Patrick Halpin, a Democrat and former Suffolk County executive.
As a frequent guest on cable news shows and in Facebook and Twitter posts, Zeldin has emerged as a vocal defender of the president and many of his policies. Even in Trump's most controversial moments — including separation of immigrant families at the border, his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president's vulgar description of some poor countries — Zeldin's reaction has danced around criticism of him.
At Zeldin’s campaign rally kickoff June 28, Sean Spicer, Trump's former press secretary, joined Gorka, a former deputy assistant to Trump.
“One of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters, allies out there, is Lee Zeldin,” Spicer said. “Donald Trump needs more partners like Lee Zeldin in Congress.”
The 1st Congressional District has been Long Island's swing district, trading off between Democrats and Republicans over the years in often razor-thin elections. The district, which covers Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island and Southold, as well as slices of Smithtown and Islip, voted twice narrowly for President Barack Obama, and was held by Rep. Tim Bishop, a liberal Democrat, for 12 years before Zeldin defeated him in 2014.
Then came 2016. Trump won the district over Hillary Clinton 54 percent to 42 percent. Zeldin that year won his re-election over Democrat Anna Throne-Holst 58 percent to 42 percent.
"I think the congressman is emboldened by President Trump’s performance in 2016, and this election will tell us whether this is new baseline for district, or whether it will go back to being the swing district it was before," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the non-partisan Washington D.C. publication Inside Elections, which covers congressional elections.
Historically, the president's party has lost House seats after his election. While Trump remains a polarizing figure, he remains extremely popular among Republicans, Gonzales said.
"Republicans need the president’s supporters to vote in November, or they’re going to suffer catastrophic losses," he said.
David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report, said Zeldin is walking the line. "He’s got to do both, keep the base engaged without offending independents. There are Republicans who have found ways of embracing the president without embracing his style."
Zeldin, in an interview, said he has differred with Trump over legislation and has raised issues with the president, such as tweets that can distract from his policies and successes.
"Where I agree with the president, I’ll state that I agree with the president. Where I disagree, I’ll state that I disagree,” he said in an interview, after a ceremony celebrating Stony Brook Hospital's burn center.
To be sure, Zeldin has not been in lockstep with Trump. Zeldin voted against the Republican tax plan because it capped the state and local tax deductions. He has opposed the administration's proposal to open up the New York coastline for drilling and opposed a successful Republican bill that rolled back Internet privacy protections.
By some measures, Zeldin's voting record related to Trump policy is right where it should be given how the district voted in 2016. The analytics website FiveThirtyEight said Zeldin has voted in line with Trump's position 85.9 percent of the time, exactly where expected for a district that voted for Trump by 12 percentage points. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), by comparison, has voted with the president 85.5 percent of the time.
Out of 236 Republicans, 211 have voted with Trump more often than Zeldin, largely a reflection of repeated votes on tax reform, Zeldin's office said.
Still, Zeldin in the interview said Trump is more popular today in the district than on Election Day in 2016.
Zeldin said Bishop's success wasn’t a sign that the district preferred a moderate. Instead, he said the Democrat won because he peeled away Republican voters from his GOP opponents.
“I would say the reason that Tim Bishop electorally was able to get more votes, if you were just going to analyze registration and numbers, is that he had a quarter of the Republican vote, every election,” Zeldin said. “No one is getting a quarter of the Republican vote from me.”
Jon Schneider, former district director for Bishop, agreed that Bishop won with significant Republican support. Bishop, he said "was able to get crossover Republican votes because he held dozens of town hall meetings a year, worked hard on constituent issues, worked hard on local issues, and listened very respectfully to people on both sides of the aisle.”
In nonpresidential election years, congressional voters of the party in power have historically stayed at home and the out-of-power party supporters have been motivated to vote.
Zeldin expressed confidence he could motivate Republicans in November.
“I’m on it. I’m well aware. I’m well aware of the dynamics of turnout and measuring enthusiasm and identifying and turning out voters,” he said. “That’s something I’m cognizant of in running a successful campaign.”
He said Democratic attacks on Trump have turned off voters in the district.
"Many in the Democratic Party have used tactics to oppose him that have turned off people, not only those that support the president, but some people who don’t," he said.
In 2014, Trump had recorded an endorsement for Zeldin during his successful campaign.
"He fought a pretty popular guy and I said 'I think he’s going to win,'" Trump said to gathered law enforcement members for an MS-13 event in Brentwood last year. "And I went heavy for him and he won. Won pretty easily.”
But Zeldin did not endorse Trump until after the New York primary in 2016.
Trump has raised Zeldin’s late endorsement in multiple meetings, according to Republican sources. One source described it as “half-joking, half-serious.”
Zeldin confirmed "there's been a couple of times when he's joked around," but he said he has an excellent relationship with the president.
"The interaction has been very helpful when it relates to working together on MS-13, working together on issues like Israel, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. We’ve had the opportunity to interact on many different issues that have helped my ability to do my job and represent my constituents," he said.
Democrats have decried Zeldin's close relationship with Trump and his allies, particularly Gorka, who Jewish groups had accused of ties to far-right Hungarian groups with links to anti-Semitism before Gorka left the administration last year. Zeldin is one of two Republican Jewish members of Congress. They also criticized Zeldin for holding a fundraiser with Bannon, who ran the conservative populist website Breitbart.
“We have never witnessed anyone on Long Island, from either party, embrace the kind of extreme, divisive rhetoric and ideology that Lee Zeldin has,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from Great Neck. “Lee Zeldin’s campaign has become the rehab center for all the people who were too demogogic and crazy for Donald Trump to be seen with.”
Steve Louro, a Nissequogue businessman who is hosting an August fundraiser for Zeldin featuring Donald Trump Jr., praised the job Zeldin is doing.
"His relationship with Trump is going to help him, because he (Trump) is very strong here, which showed in the presidential election," he said.
Gershon said rather than focusing on Zeldin's relationship with Trump, he wants to focus on Zeldin's record on health care, environmental issues and sluggish job growth in the district.
"He can turn to Bannon and Gorka and try to excite his supporters. I want to stay focused on the real issues and his record," he said. "Wrapping himself around Trump speaks for itself. I’m focused on winning votes, and I’m going to need to get support from people in both parties. I have a message of bipartisanship and uniting country. While the president, and by extension Zeldin, is trying to divide us."
Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle said that because Trump remains popular in Suffolk, there's no reason for Zeldin to distance himself from him.
"I think one of the great aspects of Lee Zeldin is he has support from a lot of different perspectives. He has a lot of conservative support. He also has a lot of moderate support," he said. "I think as you move forward, you'll see he has tremendous moderate support."
He added, "While he's supportive of the president on many of the issues, he's not afraid to voice disagreement when there’s concern."
Standing by Trump
Controversy: Trump reportedly described Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries.”
Response: Zeldin tweeted “Pres @realDonaldTrump wasn’t elected for his ability or willingness to be politically correct. The fact is that there are many nations in the world struggling mightily,” he wrote. "I'm not though here to call for the President's mouth to be washed out w soap & then for him to be physically removed from office. He's not perfect, but no President has ever been perfect."
Controversy: President Donald Trump cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia interfered with U.S. election in 2016 during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Response: Zeldin in a statement said, "it is important that President Trump met with Putin today, America's adversary, but opportunities like today must be better seized to tell the Russians to stay thousands of miles away from American elections." He added: "With that being said, dialogue regarding cyber, Syria, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, defeating radical Islamic extremism, Russian intel officer extradition and more is absolutely imperative and important opportunities for progress on many fronts should be pursued and achieved."
Controversy: The Trump administration implemented a policy to separate children from parents at the border.
Response: Zeldin said the Obama administration was also to blame, but it was “not a good policy to separate families at border” because it creates more unaccompanied minors. “Best way to avoid trouble at border? Follow our rules & don't enter US ILLEGALLY. Our laws are to be upheld & respected, not ignored & violated,” he tweeted.
Controversy: President Donald Trump blamed both white supremacists and counter-protestors for violence in Charlottesville surrounding the removal of Confederate war monuments.
Response: Zeldin, in a statement, said Trump was correct to point out that both leftist anti-fascist groups and “KKK and Nazism” supporters showed up looking for violence. “These two sides are not equal. They are different. I would add, though, that it is not right to suggest that President Trump is wrong for acknowledging the fact that criminals on both sides showed up for the purpose of being violent. That particular observation is completely true,” he wrote.