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Primary politics: Weighing local, national parties' roles in Rice, Zeldin races

Kathleen Rice, left, current Nassau County district attorney

Kathleen Rice, left, current Nassau County district attorney and Democratic candidate for Congress 4th District, on May 12, 2014, and Lee Zeldin, current New York State senator (3rd District) and GOP candidate for Congress 1st District, at his campaign office on May 9, 2014. Photo Credit: James Escher

In the Democratic primary in Nassau County's 4th Congressional District, winner Kathleen Rice raised 12 times more than opponent Kevan Abrahams -- without any help from her county party, which stayed neutral in the race.

In the 1st District Republican primary in Suffolk, victor Lee Zeldin, a state senator, had far less money than challenger George Demos -- but counteracted Demos' paid ads and mailers with an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation organized by the county GOP.

The party involvement was different, but the results were the same: Rice and Zeldin, the favorites of their national party leaders, won their high-profile primaries by large margins.

Political experts said the different dynamics of the two races made it difficult to assess the role of the political parties. Rice has wider name recognition than Zeldin, with a political power base built over more than nine years as DA, while the Suffolk GOP and its town committees have a larger organization than the Nassau Democrats.

But both primaries had low turnout: 6.7 percent in the 4th District Democratic race and about 10 percent in the 1st GOP contest. And in such races, it's key for candidates to get their supporters to the polls -- whether they pay for their own mailers and field operation, or rely on many party volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors, the experts said.

"Primaries are much more about turnout: identifying your vote and getting it out," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works mostly with Republicans. "They're about execution and not so much about message."

Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said beliefs about whether candidates can win in a general election also is a factor in many primaries.

"Going into this election, I think it was pretty clear to people who are informed on such things that national Democrats generally thought Rice was the best candidate for the general [election] in NY-4 and that Zeldin was the best candidate for national Republicans in NY-1," he wrote in an email. "Perhaps some voters thought about electability, as opposed to parochial concerns, money or ideology."


Electability a factor

Rice defeated Abrahams, minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, by a 12 percentage point margin. Rice had raised $2.1 million to Abrahams' $162,132, and spent $638,245 to his $112,135 as of June 4, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Rice spokesman Eric Phillips said that while Rice won comfortably, "the June [primary election] date and the low turnout definitely hurt us" in running up a higher vote margin.

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs cited both Rice's and Abrahams' long-standing ties to the party in staying out of their primary. He'd feuded with Rice since criticizing her last year for not filing charges against former Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, accused of ordering the arrest of a witness in a politically charged elections case.

"The results of the primary make clear that either candidate could have won. Both would have benefited had the party taken their side," Jacobs said, arguing that turnout also would have been higher.

Abrahams, with less money than Rice, may have stood to benefit more from the organizational support Jacobs could have provided. But Abrahams said he wasn't hurt by the party's lack of involvement. "It had the effect that Jay wanted it to have," Abrahams said. "I think he wanted to have the cards fall where they may."

Phillips said Jacobs' stance had no impact. Rice's "political independence has allowed her to create a grassroots network of supporters outside of any party infrastructure," he said.


Party support paid off

In the 1st District primary, Suffolk Republicans and Conservatives campaigned actively for Zeldin. He defeated Demos by 24 percentage points even though Demos spent $1.9 million to Zeldin's $584,982 through June 4, much of it on TV spots.

"There was a lot of money spent, and a lot of negative ads, which suppressed the vote," Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said. "But the real die-hard Republicans came out and came out for Lee Zeldin."

Party leaders said volunteer door-to-door and telephone campaigning helped Zeldin blunt Demos' ads. The ground effort on Zeldin's behalf began five weeks before the primary, with volunteers working from a list of 10,000 potential supporters.

On primary day, officials ensured that volunteers were active in all 470 election districts, with a focus on senior centers.

"It was old school versus new school," LaValle said. "Demos clearly had the resources and a high-tech capability. We had less resources, but we had a primary ground game, which was irreplaceable."

The Demos campaign declined to comment for this story, but pointed to remarks Demos made on election night. "We gave it our all," he said to supporters, later declining to say if he'd run the campaign differently. "It was an incredible experience and I'm so grateful for all the support I got."

Zeldin will face six-term Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in the November election.

Rice faces Bruce Blakeman, a former Nassau County legislative presiding officer, in the fall to determine who will succeed retiring nine-term Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola).

Blakeman in the GOP primary on Tuesday defeated attorney Frank Scaturro by 32 percentage points. Blakeman, like Zeldin, had the backing of his county Republican committee, which also had many volunteers make phone calls to prospective voters and visit their homes in the weeks before the election.

Blakeman, who spent more than $200,000 on primary television ads, ended up getting more votes in his race than Rice received in hers -- 8,461 to her 6,874 -- although the district has 31,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

With David M. Schwartz


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