In the last two months, Suffolk Republican Legis. Kevin McCaffrey says he has knocked on the doors of all 1,100 Conservative voters in the 14th Legislative District to try to get back the minor party ballot line, which helped give him a winning edge in his past two elections.

But McCaffrey is facing a stiff challenge in Tuesday's primary because his name will not appear on the ballot, and the only way he can win it is by waging a write-in campaign for the Conservative nomination. That's all because of a deal the Conservative Party struck with Democrats to cross-endorse each other's county legislature candidates.

For years, Conservatives, who rarely put up candidates of their own, have generally cross-endorsed Republican candidates because their political positions are more similar. However, Suffolk Conservatives, who have been embroiled in an ongoing feud with former Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, in recent years have made cross-endorsement agreements with Democrats for judges, district attorney and sheriff as well as handful of town and county offices.

The potential impact in the legislative races is huge because the Conservative line can pull from eight to 12 percent of the vote in November. McCaffrey got 10.4 percent on the line in his narrow 210-vote victory in 2015 over Tim Sini, now the county district attorney, and 1,384 votes in his reelection two years ago.

Compounding the difficulty, the primary for the first time is being held in June — right when school’s out and vacations begin — rather than in September. McCaffrey is hoping for a turnout of from 200 to 300, but that number could be lower.

McCaffrey is not alone. Four GOP contenders — two incumbents and two seeking a rematch, all of whom had minor party backing in the past — are directly or indirectly embroiled in an arcane political maneuver formally called an “Opportunity to Ballot,” which in a primary allows party members to write in the name of any person of their choosing.

In the 8th District, Democratic Legis. William Lindsay III has the Conservative line against GOP aide Anthony Piccirillo, whom he beat by 242 votes two years ago when Piccirillo got 1,418 votes on the minor party line.

Suffolk Republican Legis. Kevin McCaffrey's name will not appear on the...

Suffolk Republican Legis. Kevin McCaffrey's name will not appear on the Conservative Party line for Tuesday's primary. Credit: James Escher

In the 14th District, Democrats are backing Conservative Tom Gargiulo against two-term incumbent McCaffrey. If Gargiulo succeeds, he would be the first Conservative to win a legislative seat since Rose Caracappa, who died in 1995. 

In two other races, Conservatives are running their own candidates, but Republicans claim they have no chance of winning and are only there to siphon votes from GOP contenders.

In the 13th District, Republican Legis. Robert Trotta, a retired Suffolk police detective, is looking to wrest the Conservative nod away from Rick Lanese, Smithtown Conservative treasurer, through an Opportunity to Ballot.

In the 6th District, GOP legislative contender Gary Pollakusky has kept his distance from an Opportunity to Ballot effort by Conservative dissident Kenneth Auerbach aimed at Conservative designee James Kevins Jr. Auerbach did not return calls for comment. Auerbach wants Conservative voters to write in Pollakusky for the party nod.

McCaffrey called the backroom deal between Conservatives and Democrats “an unholy alliance,” where minor party leaders are ignoring die-hard rank-and-file, who may not be politically active, but hold views that are solidly on the right.

“These are pure conservatives,” said McCaffrey. “And they are shocked and appalled when they find out Conservative Party’s official designee is also the candidate of the Democratic Party.”

But Gargiulo said, “I’m the Conservative and my party happens to like me and think I’m the better person,” adding, "If I win I will do the best for people, no matter if they are one side or the other.”

Gargiulo, who works part-time at the Babylon Town recreation center, also downplayed the chasm between Conservatives and Democrats when it comes to local issues. Gargiulo said he doesn’t see Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, who is also Suffolk Democratic chairman, “as left or right. He really focuses on the town’s problems.”

Paul Sabatino, former chief deputy county executive, warned the deluge of progressive Democratic legislation in Albany could energize Conservatives to turn out to register their protest. “I think the stars are aligning for Republicans because Democrats have overplayed their hand by making Albany into Venezuela,” he said.

While GOP challengers hope for an emotional outpouring, Schaffer said he expects a low turnout driven by those who have been most active in Conservative politics. He said Lindsay and McDermott deserved Conservative backing because they have been fiscally conservative.

“Republicans have complained about the end of fusion voting,” said Schaffer. “But how can you complain about ending cross-endorsements and be upset when a minor party doesn’t endorse your candidates. You can’t have it both ways.”

Mike Dawidziak, a political consultant for mainly for Republicans and Conservatives, said opportunities to ballot draw few voters and are races that take the most effort to win. It requires not only identifying supporters, but getting them to the polls and educating them how to vote and even spell the challenger’s name right, since it is not even on the ballot.

“Counting on people to be up in arms and rabid is not a good strategy because no one is talking about an” Opportunity to Ballot, he said, “If you are not being begged, asked or pulled, you’re probably not voting.”

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