New York’s 1st Congressional District hosts this election cycle’s most Jewish race, and one that provides valuable insight into a question on the minds of many Republicans: Is aligning with Donald Trump an electoral benefit, or a burden?
Lee Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, is seeking his third term in what should have been a relatively easy race. His eastern Long Island district is mixed but has a distinct Republican leaning and Zeldin, the incumbent, is widely liked by constituents. But he is also an avowed Trumpist, who has not only sided with the president and with most of his policies, but also cozied up to Trump’s right-wing base, including former adviser Steve Bannon.
On the Democratic side, Perry Gershon, a Jewish real-estate developer who moved from Manhattan to Long Island, is successfully attracting donors and, to a lesser extent, voters. A recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Sienna College put Gershon 8 points behind Zeldin, although many of those questioned in the poll did not respond. Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by a 12 percent margin. Gershon has been endorsed by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and Zeldin has the endorsement of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
As with any 2018 congressional race, Zeldin and Gershon have sparred over taxes, healthcare, fiscal responsibility and political experience. But the shadow of Trump has loomed large over the NY-1 elections, making the local competition more of a referendum on the president and on those who associate themselves with him.
Zeldin seeks to walk a tightrope in his approach to Trump, at times serving as a human shield for the president, while at times distancing himself from his policies. Zeldin has met with the President, praised him and even leapt to Trump’s defense when few others in the Republican Party were willing to do so. After Trump made the false claim that his campaign was spied on by the Obama administration, Zeldin appeared on CNN and struggled to explain Trump’s statement, eventually leading the interviewer Erin Burnett to ask, “I’m wondering what it will take for you, Congressman Zeldin, to say he’s full of it.” In his frequent appearances on cable news the New York Republican found himself standing up for the president after his controversial press conference with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, as well as in the midst of the uproar over Trump’s policy of separating refugee children from their parents.
Zeldin also associated himself with figures from the Trump White House who had been shunned by many in the Jewish community for the company they keep. He welcomed Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist who previously ran Breitbart News, as the keynote speaker at his fundraiser, and hosted Sebastian Gorka at the launch of his 2018 campaign. Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, praised Zeldin at the event, declaring, “One of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters, allies out there, is Lee Zeldin. Donald Trump needs more partners like Lee Zeldin in Congress.”
But while showing no hesitation in defending Trump publicly, Zeldin has dared to counter the president on some of his key legislative issues. Zeldin voted 86 percent of the time with Trump’s position on legislation brought to the House of Representatives. But, well aware of the moderate makeup of his district and the bright blue character of his state, Zeldin parted with Trump on the tax reform and on efforts to repeal Obamacare, both issues that would not go down well with New York Republicans.
Zeldin’s loyalty has been rewarded by Trump in the form of a warm endorsement tweet praising the Long Island politician for being “tough and smart,” qualities for which he received Trump’s “complete and total endorsement.” Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the GOP’s top Jewish funders, each maxed out their $5,400 for Zeldin, and the Republican Jewish Coalition sent out a fundraising email to supporters urging them to donate to Zeldin, who is “second to none in supporting Israel.”
Perry Gershon, Zeldin’s Democratic rival, is facing an uphill battle. Not only is he a newcomer to politics entering the race in a Republican district, but, as a recent transplant to Long Island, he is faced with claims of carpetbagging by Zeldin supporters. At the same time, Gershon has been successful in fundraising for his campaign, drawing, in part, on the Hampton liberals in his district. His message to voters has focused on a progressive agenda regarding healthcare, women’s health and infrastructure investment, while trying to position Zeldin as an extremist on pocketbook issues such social security. Perry has also attacked Zeldin for his close ties to Trump and his associates. “Lee Zeldin gets a large chunk of his funding from Sheldon Adelson,” Gershon told The Forward. “I think that says a lot about Lee Zeldin’s policies and the way he looks at life. I’m not a Sheldon Adelson guy. I’m proud of that fact. I advertise it. Lee Zeldin does his campaign rallies with Sebastian Gorka, with Steve Bannon and with Roger Stone.”
But Gershon also understands the perils of turning a local House race into a referendum of the president and the risk that by doing so he is ignoring voters’ daily concerns. During a recent debate between the two candidates, Gershon tried his best to steer clear of focusing solely on the man occupying the White House. “I’m here to make NY-11 better. I’m not here talking about Donald Trump. Lee [Zeldin] is dying to shift the dialogue because he doesn’t want to talk about health care, the environment, arming teachers. He’s deflecting,” he said, but Zeldin shot back: “Interesting for a guy who said he’s not here to talk about Trump. That’s the one word he’s actually used the most so far in the debate.”
Days before voters go to the polls, Democrats are still pouring money into the race, believing Gershon can pull off an upset as part of what they hope will be a major blue wave that will sweep Congress. Republicans, on the other hand, feel comfortable with Zeldin’s lead in the polls and with his ability to enjoy Trump’s popularity among Republicans while staking independent positions on issues of concern to his voters.
Either way, New York’s 1st Congressional District will be sending a member of the Jewish community to Congress as its next representative.