In the 1st Congressional District race, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Democrat Nancy Goroff, a Stony Brook University scientist, are battling over the coronavirus pandemic, health care and law enforcement — issues that are central in the contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Zeldin, 40, has called the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic "phenomenal," while Goroff, 52, has denounced it as "incompetent."
Goroff, who supports maintaining the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicare access, notes that Zeldin has voted repeatedly to repeal and replace the law, a position she says could jeopardize access to health care for thousands of district residents.
Zeldin says the program, dubbed Obamacare, is not affordable for many, effectively limiting their access to health services.
Zeldin also is running on a pro-law-enforcement platform. He called Goroff a "radical professor" who does not support police after she attended a Black Lives Matter protest following George Floyd's killing in police custody in Minneapolis in May.
Goroff says she supports police and is against defunding them. But she agrees with some tenets of the defund movement, such as increasing funding for social services and curbing racial bias.
The candidates do agree on one issue: Federal pandemic relief.
Both call for a new economic relief plan with funding for testing, small businesses and state and local governments — although Zeldin voted in May against the $3 trillion HEROES Act sponsored by House Democrats. He said the package was too large for congressional Republicans to accept, and that he preferred that the parties reach a deal.
Zeldin and Goroff are vying to represent a sprawling Suffolk County district that stretches from Brookhaven to the East End.
The district is home to more than 700,000 people, 85% of whom are white, according to the Census Bureau. It includes Republican strongholds such as Mastic Beach and Manorville in Brookhaven Town, farming areas on the North Fork and wealthy enclaves in the Hamptons.
The median income is $101,000, 1.5 times the national average, census data shows.
The 1st long has had a reputation as a swing district. It went twice for Democrat Barack Obama for president. But in 2016, Trump, a Republican, won the district by a 12 percentage point margin.
A variety of Republicans and Democrats, including Republican Felix Grucci Jr. and Democrat Tim Bishop, have held the congressional seat since the 1980s.
Goroff said she entered the race because of her frustration with Zeldin’s close ties to Trump. She has emphasized her background as a chemist, and criticizes Trump for failing to listen to scientists as he has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
"I was just so frustrated and infuriated by the president and our representative, Lee Zeldin, and their willingness to ignore facts and to simply lie on so many issues, from climate change to health care to gun safety," Goroff said in an interview.
Zeldin said his ties to the White House have been an asset for the district.
Zeldin said he helped secure more than 200,000 N95 protective masks for Suffolk County during the peak of the pandemic in April.
He also lobbied U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to allow Suffolk access to a U.S. Federal Reserve borrowing program.
"I have so many different examples like that, where my relationship with the president and the administration has, time and time again, directly resulted in massive benefit to the life of my constituents, regardless of their political party or what corner of the district they're from," Zeldin said in an interview.
The race between Zeldin, one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress, and Goroff, a political newcomer, could represent something of a referendum on Trump, according to some political analysts.
"I would be willing to bet a shiny penny that if Trump loses in the First District, Zeldin does too. Whether he deserves it or not, his fortunes are, like Republican candidates all over the country, tied to President Trump," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Many also expect the 1st District election to be tight.
Meena Bose, executive dean of public policy and public service at Hofstra University, said the race "is very much in play."
Zeldin has the advantage of the incumbency, Bose said, but Goroff has the opportunity to challenge him during a national crisis.
"That’s why you see such a competitive race in the First District," Bose said.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, said the district is leaning Republican, while the website FiveThirtyEight, which forecasts races and compiles polls, has Zeldin favored to win.
Goroff is seeking political office for the first time and says she aims to be Congress' first female scientist with a PhD.
Goroff's grandfather came to the country illegally from Ukraine, jumping from a merchant marine boat near Baltimore.
Goroff grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, and her parents owned a paint shop. She moved to Stony Brook in 1997. Her ex-husband used to work for a hedge fund led by billionaire Robert Mercer, a major financial backer of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Goroff, who has remarried to an engineer, has two daughters.
Goroff has worked and taught for more than two decades at Stony Brook University, where she ran both a research lab that helped develop solar energy materials and a chemistry department with 300 employees and a multimillion-dollar budget. Goroff took a leave of absence to run for Congress last year and in June defeated three primary contenders, including Perry Gershon, the Democrats' nominee for the seat in 2018.
Zeldin, who is seeking a fourth term, grew up in a blue collar family of law enforcement members in Shirley, where he still lives with his wife, a patent specialist, and two daughters. Zeldin, an attorney, served in the Army and was deployed to Iraq. He is an Army Reserve member, and served in the state Senate from 2011 to '14.
Zeldin was elected to Congress in 2014, defeating incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop by nearly 9 percentage points. Zeldin won reelection by16 points in 2016. He beat Gershon by 4 points in 2018, when Democrats seized control of the U.S. House.
The demographics of the 1st District have shifted somewhat since the last election.
Republicans account for 32.7% of registered voters, compared with about 34% in 2018. Democrats make up 32.3% of voters, compared with 30% in 2018, election data shows.
About 35% of voters are unaffiliated with a major party, and 55,000 registered voters have joined rolls since the 2018 election.
Democrats say the uptick in their numbers shows increased energy among their voters in response to issues such as the pandemic and impeachment.
"Even those who may have wanted to give Trump the benefit of the doubt are as exhausted as the rest of us from the lack of leadership and just the disastrous response to the most serious health risk in our lifetime from the pandemic," said county Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer.
Suffolk GOP Chairman Jesse Garcia noted that Republicans have held numerous Trump rallies in recent weeks. He said that party voters are expected to turn out in large numbers on Election Day.
"There's an energy, there's a buzz," Garcia said. "They understand the future of our country is at stake."
Zeldin had raised more than $7 million and had over $2.7 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, according to federal campaign disclosure records.
Donald Trump Jr. hosted a fundraiser for Zeldin. Outside committees including the Republican Jewish Coalition, Pete King for Congress and the Suffolk County Patrolmen's Benevolent Association PAC have contributed a total of $1.3 million to Zeldin's campaign, federal filings show.
Goroff has raised about $4.25 million for the race, and has about $1 million in cash on hand, records show. Goroff also has lent her campaign $1.15 million.
Goroff has received about $230,000 from outside organizations including the nonprofit EMILY's List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women for office, 314 Action Fund, a nonprofit that seeks to elect more scientists to Congress and other offices, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official fundraising arm for House Democrats.
As the race enters its final days, both candidates have committed supporters.
Sarah Malinowski, a Fishers Island oyster farmer, said Goroff has more concrete plans than Zeldin on issues such as climate change and immigration, noting that the restaurant industry relies heavily on workers who are in the country illegally.
"I feel like as a candidate, she's willing to address the complexity of the issues facing Long Islanders," Malinowksi, 64, said of Goroff.
Malinowski, a Democrat who backs Biden for president, said Zeldin's "approach to things more is to just distract Long Islanders from their problems by [making] insulting attacks on his opponent,"
Thomas Lassandro, 67, of Baiting Hollow, said he likes that Zeldin is a military veteran who has worked across the aisle and has staunchly supported law enforcement.
Lassandro, who retired from a Riverhead senior center, said he feels that Zeldin puts the district and the country over politics.
"I support whoever is out to protect our freedom, and she [Goroff] has not shown that to me in any shape, way or form. Lee has," said Lassandro, a registered Republican who plans to vote for Trump.
Correction: Nancy Goroff is married. An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed her marital status.
LEE M. ZELDIN
Education/career: Bachelor’s degree, University of Albany; law degree, Albany Law School. Zeldin, who also has the Conservative and Independence Party lines, served in the U.S. Army on active duty and serves in the Army Reserves. New York State Senate, 2011-2014; elected to Congress, 2014. Member, House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees.
Family: Married, two daughters.
NANCY S. GOROFF
Home: Stony Brook
Education/career: Bachelor’s degree, Harvard University; Ph.D., University of California Los Angeles. Goroff, who also has the Working Families line, has worked and taught at Stony Brook University, where she also ran a research lab, since 1997.
Family: Married, two daughters.