Most of what many know about the Republican candidates facing off in Tuesday's 1st Congressional District primary likely comes from both campaigns' often-nasty TV commercials. Half of what's being said or implied basically isn't true, while the other half is true but irrelevant. Even die-hards who listened to an hour radio debate heard more brutal attacks than reasoned explorations of the policy differences.
State Sen. Lee Zeldin, a lawyer and Army Reserve major, is facing former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer George Demos for the right to challenge six-term Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop in November's general election. Zeldin's most consistent knock on Demos is that nearly all of his funding comes from the fortune, friends and relatives of his wife's father, a billionaire businessman and supporter of liberal Democrats. It's true, but not important, because Demos' conservatism is as real and omnipresent as rap.
There is a whiff of conspiracy in ads linking Demos to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) based on common donors. The implication is that Demos is opposing Zeldin to do Bishop a favor. The fact that Demos took very conservative stances when he sought the seat in 2010, before he met his wife and her dad, and again in 2012, suggests that's not true, and Zeldin said he feels Demos truly wants the seat.
Demos' ads and debate patter paint Zeldin as "an Albany liberal" in a tone that implies that's just a step above (or below) "Krakow Communist." But Zeldin's conservatism is as real and omnipresent as Miley Cyrus and has been on display since he first opposed Bishop for the seat in 2008. Demos claims Zeldin loves to raise taxes and voted to support Obamacare, the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 and Common Core. In truth, Zeldin's opposition to all three has been loud to the point of rabidity. Although Zeldin has "voted for 104 taxes," as one Demos ad states, practically all of those were renewal authorizations for things like existing sales taxes and museum fees that were not increased.
The two men and the super PACs that support them may have resorted to embarrassing, dishonest and trivial tactics because there is no meaningful distinction in their beliefs. Both oppose abortion, think taxes are too high, support gun rights, hate Common Core, favor a strong national defense, are against "amnesty" for immigrants here illegally . . . and I could go on and on. I have not turned up any meaningful difference between them on policy.
The one difference between Demos and Zeldin that Republicans may want to base their vote on is also one of the biggest divides in the Republican Party.
Demos believes in the "no compromises" model of conservatism. He likes to point to a time when George Pataki was the lone state senator to vote against a budget in Albany as a heroic act. Demos speaks poorly of compromise and highly of the "lone voice" leading.
Zeldin has cast the occasional quixotic vote, but he also has shown, in his four years in Albany and in his statements, a willingness to compromise if he believes it furthers an important cause. One example: Zeldin fought for a deal that cut the MTA payroll tax on 80 percent of employers and cut state income taxes for the middle class, but also raised them on New Yorkers making more than $2 million a year.
Both the "no compromise" model and the "give ground to further conservative goals" model have fans in the GOP. This is a reasonable basis to choose, particularly in a race in which the differences in their political stances, and the mud getting hurled on the campaign trail, are not.