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Sharp divisions between Bishop, Zeldin in 1st Congressional District race

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014 challenger State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Credit: James Escher

Republican state Sen. Lee Zeldin says Rep. Tim Bishop, his Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District, has been in office too long, done too little and is too tied to President Barack Obama.

"We cannot elect the same congressman over and over and over again and ever expect a different result," Zeldin said. "We need a check and balance on the president's agenda."

Bishop, 64, who is seeking his seventh term, said voters know and trust him -- and that's why he has repeatedly been re-elected. He calls himself a "seasoned, pragmatic, solution-oriented legislator with a long history of partnering with anyone to get the job done," and says Zeldin, 34, is too far right for the district.

"He's still the same candidate with the same extreme views on public policy issues, despite his protestations . . . he's hardly a moderate," Bishop said.

The race is a rematch of 2008, when Bishop defeated Zeldin, who then was underfunded and untested. Zeldin is better known since defeating Democratic state Sen. Brian Foley in 2010, but trails Bishop in fundraising by a significant amount.

Conflicts over policy

As in 2008, the candidates are far apart on issues.

Bishop backs an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, saying it would spur the economy and allow food stamp spending to drop by $40 billion over a decade.

Zeldin, who supported a hike in the New York State minimum to $9, said the federal increase could cause "collateral damage" and force some small businesses to close.

Zeldin calls Obamacare "a mess" and backs its repeal, saying it has resulted in higher deductibles, less coverage and longer waits.

Bishop has supported the Affordable Care Act but says it is "a work in progress" that needs to be fixed in some areas.

Bishop blames Republicans for backing repeal bills without putting forward an alternative for the 13 million Americans now getting coverage. Zeldin said he favors some elements of the act, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing children to remain on the family health plan to age 26, and says he is open to discussion.

Bishop also supports a compromise bipartisan Senate immigration bill, which would give a 15-year pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States. Bishop says they they will "pay their dues" through repeated penalties and back taxes.

Zeldin opposes any form of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He rejects the Senate bill because it "tries to tackle a thousand different challenges to immigration in one piece of legislation." He said the country's first priority must be border security.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Zeldin's election would increase dysfunction in Congress because he has "bought lock, stock and barrel into the tea party agenda."

Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman, said Zeldin has demonstrated leadership and worked with Democrats in Albany, sponsoring 48 laws, including the rollback of saltwater fishing license fees and a cut in the MTA payroll tax. Garcia said Bishop has sponsored only four successful bills -- all naming post offices.

Bishop countered the post office bills honored heroic veterans, but said his legislative footprint is far wider.

Bishop said he has co-authored key bills, including the Student Aid Financial Responsibility Act, which cut $65 billion in wasteful subsidies to banks and reallocated the money to college Pell Grants without extra cost to the government. He said he also helped write a successful measure that could provide funding for dredging small East End harbors such as Shinnecock, Montauk and Mattituck.

Battleground district gaps

The battleground 1st District includes Suffolk's five East End towns, all of Brookhaven and the eastern part of Smithtown. It has been a swing district that has caromed between Republican and Democratic control a half-dozen times since Democrat Otis Pike was elected in 1960. There are 151,911 registered Republicans, 131,744 Democrats and 117,768 unaligned with any party.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the seat as "leaning Democratic," and the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report lists the race as "toss up" but has it "leaning Bishop." A Newsday-News 12-Siena poll gave Bishop a 10-point lead in mid-September.

A GOP survey, done by Harper Polling on Sept. 29, put the race at a dead heat.

With three weeks to go, Bishop has $1,014,705 in cash to Zeldin's $404,168, according to October quarterly campaign finance reports filed Wednesday. Zeldin raised $659,455 and spent $391,645 during the quarterly reporting period, while Bishop raised $700,000 and spent $815,249.

A half-dozen outside groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, have spent $2.1 million to help Bishop and $2.6 million to aid Zeldin, filings show. Overall, Bishop, Zeldin and the outside groups have already spent about $7.2 million, a figure that could rise to $9 million to $10 million by Nov. 4.

To move potential voters, both sides have flooded the district with largely negative mail and TV ads.

Republican ads attacked Bishop as "corrupt" in the wake of a 2-year-old House ethics probe over whether Bishop broke the law when he sought a campaign donation from a constituent he had helped get a fireworks permit. Bishop went up with an ad this week proclaiming that the Justice Department closed its investigation last month without filing charges.

Obama ratings a factor

GOP officials say Obama's sagging popularity is hurting Bishop. But supporters emphasize that Bishop two years ago outpolled the president by more than 13,000 votes in the district. They also say Zeldin is not as well known as Bishop. In the Siena poll, 32 percent of respondents didn't know or had no opinion of Zeldin, compared with 8 percent who said that about Bishop.

Garcia countered Zeldin has generated "new energy" in the GOP and predicted he will have coattails for other Republicans.

Political consultant Michael Dawidziak, who works mainly for Republicans, predicted a close race. While the Siena poll showed Bishop 10 points ahead, it also gives Bishop a bare 51 percent majority in a head-to-head matchup.

"This is a very volatile seat," Dawidziak said. "It's going to be very close because the longer you're there, the more the undecideds [in polls] go to the challenger."

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