Rep. Peter King, speaking to supporters at Hibernian Hall in Massapequa on a recent Tuesday night, railed against Democrats for their "unconscionable" treatment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, touted positive employment trends and detailed gains against the MS-13 gang in Suffolk County.
The same night, Democratic challenger Liuba Grechen Shirley was in Plainview addressing the State of Black Long Island Equity Council, an organization focused on equity issues. Grechen Shirley focused on unequal funding of schools, the need for Medicare-for-All, and the high proportion of prisoners serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.
King and Grechen Shirley, who are vying to represent the 2nd Congressional District, painted sharply different portraits of social and economic conditions on Long Island. Their differences resembled the divides between candidates in midterm elections elsewhere in which progressive Democrats are challenging entrenched Republican incumbents.
King, 74, a 25-year incumbent, has a national profile as the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a frequent guest on Sunday morning and cable news talk shows.
King fashions himself as a “blue collar conservative” who has worked well with presidents and lawmakers of both parties. He cites his 1998 votes against impeaching then-Democratic President Bill Clinton as prime examples of his bipartisan credentials.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is mulling a bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 and pledged $80 million to help Democrats take back the House, held a fundraiser for King over the summer.
King battled members of his own party to win more money for superstorm Sandy recovery and the Homeland Security budget. He highlighted his efforts to secure funds to provide health care to 9/11 first responders and obtain research money to cure breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Grechen Shirley, 37, of Amityville, who has worked in the nonprofit sector in economic development, is among a record number of female candidates running for office this year against President Donald Trump and Republican policies.
In June, Grechen Shirley won a Democratic primary by 16 points against DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, who was backed by the county Democratic Committee.
Her candidacy attracted national attention in May after the Federal Election Commission granted her request to use campaign funds to pay for child care. She says that with the ruling in place, more working Americans and parents will consider running for office, which can mean going without a salary for an extended period of time.
While national political experts still view the 2nd District race as trending toward King, their projections have shifted somewhat in recent weeks.
Last month, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race from "Solid Republican" to “Likely Republican."
“A sleeper race” is how Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia’s elections newsletter, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, described the matchup. Last week, the newsletter moved the race designation from "Safe Republican" to "Likely Republican."
"Here’s the thing that happens in midterms like this: Incumbents from the president’s party who are used to easy elections generally see their vote shares drop," Kondik said. "It’s a bad Republican environment across the country."
Maria Urbina, national political director of the Indivisible Project, a nonprofit founded after Trump’s election, said during this election cycle, there are a number of “ordinary people engaging in activism ... they're not subscribing to the same old playbook of caution."
"They weren’t waiting for permission from the party apparatus or waiting for institutional support. Many of them ran on their own and posed a legitimate grassroots option to people," Urbina said.
The 2nd Congressional District includes predominantly white, Republican enclaves including Levittown, Seaford and Massapequa in Nassau County. It also covers more Democratic-leaning minority communities, such as Wyandanch, Brentwood and Central Islip in Suffolk.
The district's boundaries have changed dramatically over the years. By 2013, King's district had shifted to cover more territory in Suffolk County and a higher percentage of minority voters than in years past.
Democrats have 159,400 active registered voters, compared with 155,996 Republicans. Nearly 145,000 voters are unaffiliated with a political party or registered with minor parties, according to the state Board of Elections.
Grechen Shirley raised more than $1.3 million this campaign cycle, as of Oct. 1, including $722,685 from July through September. She had nearly $274,000 on hand as of Oct. 1.
King had more than $2.8 million for the campaign's final stretch. He raised more than $1.1 million during the election cycle, and about $202,000 over the past three months, campaign finance reports show.
Grechen Shirley has tried frequently to tie King to Trump. In an interview, she called King the president's "rubber stamp" and said King "was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was."
King said the Black Lives Matter movement was based on a "lie," during a town hall forum sponsored by Islip's NAACP branch, when he also denounced professional football players who kneel during the national anthem. Trump has criticized NFL players and team owners for the kneeling protest.
Democrats say a serious challenge by Grechen Shirley could tap into discontent in minority communities, where Trump is unpopular.
“We have communities of color and immigrant communities who are up in arms over what is happening in Washington, and Peter King’s failure to stand up to it,” said Daniel Altschuler, managing director of Make The Road Action, an immigrant advocacy organization.
Others say the comparison between Trump and King only goes so far.
Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo said of King: “He’s a Republican, but I think he’s had an independent part of him. He does what he believes is right.”
“I think people respect that he was willing to work with Democrats when they were in the Oval Office,” Cairo said. “By the same token, he hasn’t been afraid to stand up against President Trump.”
“Voters can see that I’m with him when it helps the district, and I oppose him when I have to," said King, who pointed to his opposition to the Republican tax plan and comments urging the president to more strongly condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin.
King also refused to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential election after old "Access Hollywood" footage revealed Trump speaking in vulgar terms about women.
Grechen Shirley said her challenge to King stemmed in part from her anger at Trump's decision in early 2017 to sign an executive order halting all refugee admissions to the United States and temporarily barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Grechen Shirley was a constituent of King's who several years earlier had moved back to Amityville, where she grew up, from Manhattan's Upper West Side.
She said she once asked King to hold a town hall-style forum, but King declined to do so because it would “diminish democracy."
King said he's attended numerous community forums and met with interest groups, but, "who was she to be calling a town meeting? It would have been a total circus.” King recalled the tense period in the first months of Trump's presidency when protesters were picketing outside his home, and people were disrupting town halls across the country.
Instead, Grechen Shirley and fellow activists sponsored a “mock town hall” with a 6-foot-tall cardboard cutout of King that's now stored in her attic.
King, however, said he didn't think Grechen Shirley's candidacy was resonating "outside the [anti-Trump] resistance movement itself. I haven’t sensed it, and I’ve been in a lot of shopping centers, supermarkets, that type of thing. I go to a lot of local sporting events, hang out, talk to people." At street fairs, there have been one or two negative reactions, but "hundreds of people asking for selfies," he said.
Grechen Shirley said she likes her chances.
"There were liberal Democrats actually, that supported Peter King in the past, frankly, because they didn’t pay attention to his voting record," she said. "When you don’t have a strong Democratic challenger calling him out on his voting record, people don’t pay attention. They vote for the person whose name they recognize.”
Now, said Grechen Shirley, "People are paying attention. People are angry.”
2nd Congressional District candidates
LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY
Education/career: Bachelor’s degree in politics and Russian from New York University; MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, where she specialized in management, economics and social innovation.Grechen Shirley has worked in the nonprofit sector as an economic development expert. Her work has focused on poverty relief.
Family: Married with two children.
Education/Career: Graduate of St. Francis College in Brooklyn; law degree from the University of Notre Dame. Served on the Hempstead Town Board and as Nassau County Comptroller. Former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Member, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Financial Services Committee.
Family: Married, with two grown children.