When Suffolk legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory disclosed last month that he was weighing a second run against Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the veteran Republican said, “The more the merrier.”
Republicans like King may worry privately about a “wave” election threatening their majorities in Congress due to President Donald Trump’s low poll numbers.
However, the GOP sees a silver lining in the prospect of Democratic primaries before the main event in November.
“The Island has seats that are vulnerable, but when you have Democratic primaries you blur the battlefield with people competing for the same resources that could keep them from winning” the general election, said Desmond Ryan, a veteran business lobbyist in Albany and Washington.
Gregory’s entry last week into the race raises the immediate prospect of a Democratic primary between him and progressive activist Liuba Grechen Shirley. Both Democrats will use the primary as a springboard.
“Once, you couldn’t pay anyone to run against Peter King,” said Gregory, who lost to King by 13 percentage points in 2016. “The fact that there’s a primary is just indicative of seeing a lot of energy on the ground. People are excited and ready for change.”
Shirley said voters are ready to elect “a representative who will stand up for our needs instead of Peter King, who voted to take away health care from thousands of people, and failed to stop the tax giveaway to the wealthy.”
King voted against Obamacare, calling it “a failure” that needed to be improved. He also voted against the 2017 tax bill that ultimately capped the deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000, though it had initially eliminated this deduction altogether.
Despite attacks, John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, said King and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) would prevail. “Democrats will battle to pull one another as far left as they possibly can and away from the middle-class values of the district,” LaValle said. King and Zeldin are high-profile fighters who voters know are fighting for them, he said. “They are both in and out of the White House because what they say matters,” he said.
There are a half-dozen Democratic contenders: Former Suffolk lawmakers Kate Browning and Vivian Viloria Fisher; East Hampton resident Perry Gershon, a transplanted Manhattanite who has raised $1 million; former Brookhaven National Laboratory Lab scientist Elaine DiMasi; David Pechefsky, who once ran a losing race for New York City Council; and bartender Brendon Henry.
Two years ago, a 1st District Democratic primary forced former Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst to spend $1.74 million to eke out a 319-vote victory. She lost by 16 percentage points to Zeldin, who spent $4.4 million and had no primary.
But Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said, “primaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing.” He said the contests can give the winning candidate momentum and help “work out kinks” for the November general election.
Schaffer recalled that then-Democrat Steve Levy got a major boost by winning the party’s 2003 primary for Suffolk County executive. Levy went on to defeat Republican Edward Romaine, now Brookhaven supervisor, who at the time had four ballot lines.
Nonetheless, some party officials say primaries can reduce the likelihood of contributions from outside sources, including national political parties. Such funding first goes to vulnerable incumbents, then open seats and to contests where the local party is united on one nominee.
Schaffer countered that “a congressional race is massive undertaking and if the race is going to be competitive, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is going to come in whether there’s a primary or not.”
But Bill Garbarino, Islip GOP leader, said that in the 1st and 2nd districts, “We have the incumbent. And if Democrats are fighting among themselves that can’t be bad for Republicans.”