National politics are inflamed and Democrats are holding out hope that anger over President Donald Trump’s policies will energize voters and carry their candidates to victory on a “blue wave” in November.
Recent polling shows Democrats with an advantage in a generic congressional race poll, but it’s also a midterm election cycle when many people simply do not vote.
Primaries in the two Long Island congressional races with Republican incumbents take place Tuesday, the start of New York’s midterm cycle. Yet multiple interviews with random constituents in those districts suggest most have no idea of even who’s running — and that, regardless, many have no plans to vote either now or in November.
Maria Chavez, 35, is a registered Democrat from Levittown. But she doesn’t vote in “local elections,” which was how she referred to the primaries and midterms, and said she doesn’t know who her congressman is. (Answer: Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a Republican who won his first election to the House from the 2nd Congressional District in 1992.)
Packing up her groceries outside a supermarket on a recent sunny day, she said, “I honestly don’t have the time between my job, my house, and my kids and their school. I probably should vote but I don’t have the time.”
Andrea Gorman of Coram — which lies in the 1st Congressional District represented since 2014 by Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) — will not be voting in November either, if she follows her usual midterm practice. “I’m not voting. I don’t pay any attention to any of that,” said the 31-year-old medical technician, who doesn’t remember her party registration. “Even though I should, I don’t.”
She did vote for Trump in the last election, and says, “I kind of regret voting for him. If they gave me a chance to vote over again for a Democrat I’d do it.” But she said she has never thought about how her vote for a congressional candidate could impact policies of a president she doesn’t like.
This year is not a presidential election year like 2016, when interest in the primaries was high and general election turnout in Suffolk County reached 70 percent. It comes midway through Trump’s first term in office, and in the last midterm election, in 2014, 36 percent of registered voters in the county voted to choose their governor and their members of Congress.
And turnout is even lower for primaries such as the upcoming one when five Democrats will vie to get on the November ballot to face Zeldin, and two to face King.
“But for the 2016 presidential primary, both Democrats and Republican voters in primary elections have exhibited a lot of apathy over the years,” said Nick LaLota, a Suffolk County Board of Elections commissioner, noting primary turnout “rarely exceeds 20 percent.”
Republicans have majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Democrats hope the midterm results could “flip” congressional leadership.
But their sense of urgency isn’t necessarily reflected in the answers of many potential voters when asked why they don’t vote. Some say they simply aren’t interested in politics and barely follow the news. Others say they find it overwhelming, or are turned off by its “negativity.” (“It’s too much going on. I stopped paying attention to it,” said Ronald Hutson, 35, of Copiague, who doesn’t know any of his elected representatives. “It’s a headache. It’s depressing.”)
Still others are turned off by a sense that politics is corrupt and nothing they can do will change it. Many say they are just busy with their own lives, or not unsettled enough by the state of politics to bother.
Dori Bainlardi, 19, a Suffolk Community College student who lives in Port Jefferson Station, might vote if her parents force her to, she said, but probably wouldn’t if it were up to her, because, “I’m not really angry and upset enough to vote.”
Among the third of voters who do turn out for the midterms here are people who would never miss a vote, people such as Republican Gordon Barton, 68, a retiree from Massapequa Park, and his wife, Carol, eating lunch at All-American Hamburger Drive-In in Massapequa recently.
“It’s one of the most cherished rights we have as Americans,” he said. “And obligation comes with that right.”
Peter Sulyok, 59, a pastor from Bridgehampton, said midterms are “very important if we want to bring a moral center back to the nation.” Tom Farruggia, 43, of Baiting Hollow, a property manager out volunteering to plant flowers on East Main Street in Riverhead, said, “Everyone needs to make their voices heard. It’s a right that people have died for.”
But it’s not always convenient to vote. That’s why Brian, who declined to give his last name, of West Babylon, has never voted. “I listen to a few political podcasts but I don’t intend to vote,” said the 30-year-old. “Literally the only reason is convenience. It sounds petty but that’s the only reason I have.”
The passions over contentious issues felt along the political spectrum (as seen on cable news shows, on Twitter, in rallies and protests) may not be penetrating the lives of people preoccupied with their own routines, or affect long-established voting habits. For example, Tom Grady, 52, of Levittown, who works in home improvement sales, votes “R” across the board because his family has always voted Republican, he said, but as far as the news, “I know Donald Trump’s our president and that’s as far as I go. I watch sports and weather . . . I’m a busy person, I get home, watch the Mets, and go to bed and get up the next day and go from there.”
Gerry Duggan, 63, a registered Republican from Massapequa, said he doesn’t foresee a blue wave. “No,” he said, “maybe a ripple. At least it appears the economy is doing better and I think despite Mr. Trump’s foibles, people are beginning to feel . . . a little bit better about the country than they have previously . . . people are feeling OK.”
People are working, said Dan, 60, a skilled carpenter from Mastic, who declined to give his last name. He’ll vote for Zeldin again. “I’m going where the money is,” he said. “Everyone is working now . . . we’re in the money and I think we’re just getting better.”
Tim Hannan, 37, of Bohemia, was one of the few voters interviewed who knew who was running in the 2nd Congressional District, and said he was “a big supporter of Liuba” — Liuba Gretchen Shirley, who will face off against Suffolk County presiding officer DuWayne Gregory for the chance to challenge King in November. But he switched his Republican registration to Democratic too late to vote in the primary, he said, and will support whoever wins.
Karen Estabrook, 56, of Shirley, a Democrat who said she works in a union shop at Verizon, is planning to vote in the upcoming 1st Congressional District Democratic primary. She is riled by the Trump administration and so is her 81-year-old mother in West Babylon, who after 60 years as a Republican is now a registered Democrat and “she’s going to vote Peter King down because he’s with Trump,” said Estabrook. “I’m voting, trust me.”
King, however, has won prior elections with the support of some Democrats, who believe he speaks his mind honestly, as one woman who gave her name as Liz, 76, from Seaford, said. She added, “I think there’s so much corruption. I don’t think it’ll make a difference if they flip the House.”
Jane Schmitt, 55, is an unaffiliated regular voter from Amityville who sees reasons for people to be cynical about politics. She comes from a large political family, she said, and “I know there’s a lot of backroom deals and cross party endorsements. There is a reason for people to be apathetical.”
She said she doesn’t vote party line or national strategy, but seeks conscientious representation: “I want to vote for the human beings I like, hoping they’ll represent us in local issues.”
The outcome of any vote can depend, in part, on such shape-shifters who don’t vote party lines, the ones who elected Obama and then elected Trump. One of those is Dan Smith, a beer distributor from Brookhaven hamlet, who said he voted for Zeldin “just based on he seemed like a likable candidate.” He’ll make up his mind “a couple of days leading up to” the election, he said, and likes when political control swings back and forth.
Democrats hope displeasure with Trump will shift the vote enough for a win, and there has been some evidence of that in other elections nationally. George Lovelock, 66, and his companion, Chrissy Grant, 58, of Babylon Village, are hopeful the wave will be big enough. Lovelock, a writer and producer who owns a production company, said that even if Democratic votes are “10 or 12 percent more, that’s a huge number. I see it as ticking up and I’m very hopeful the Democrats will take the House.”
The outcome will depend on people who do vote, such as Melissa Cascino, 40, a social worker from Middle Island who believes she voted for Zeldin in 2016, but now says “the fact that he’s a Trump supporter is the worst turnoff for me.” She doesn’t always vote in midterms, but added, “It’s becoming more important to do that.”
But the election will go on this year without the participation of Jessica O’Hara, 34, of Shirley, an accounts coordinator for a company in Ronkonkoma, despite her own unhappiness with Trump. She does not vote in midterms, she said, and won’t in November. “It’s just hard to do,” said O’Hara, a single mother of a 3-year-old who works a lot. “I honestly have so much going on personally it’s hard to focus on the news.”