The race to fill a retiring Republican’s seat in Congress has begun as Democrats see opportunity in the shifting political dynamics of New York’s Long Island suburbs.
At least two Democrats are lining up to replace U.S. Rep. Peter King, a centrist who announced Monday that he won’t seek reelection in New York’s 2nd Congressional District. A host of Republicans are thinking about entering the race, shaping up to be one of the state’s most competitive congressional contests.
The district, which includes parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties, is a political hybrid. Democrats have a slight advantage in voter registration, but the district picked President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. It is an area that has seen a steady influx of Hispanic immigrants, which has turned the area bluer but also agitated a base of more conservative voters who have concerns about Central American gangs and crime.
King’s last election opponent, Liuba Grechen Shirley, surprised many in 2018 by coming within 6 percentage points of the veteran lawmaker. She said after King’s announcement Monday that she is considering running again in 2020.
A child care advocate and liberal activist, Grechen Shirley ran her last campaign with support from some local Democratic Party officials as well as Emily’s List, a national organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.
“The issues I focused my campaign on last year — from paid family leave and affordable health care to climate change and a woman’s right to choose — are still very much at the forefront of today’s political debate,” she said.
Another Democrat who got into the race in May — long before King announced his planned retirement — is the just the kind of candidate party officials have championed in recent elections in districts they hoped to flip from Republican control.
Jackie Gordon, a high school guidance counselor and Babylon Town Board member, retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves in 2014 after nearly three decades in the armed forces. She was born in Jamaica but grew up in New York City.
Gordon, 54, said King’s decision not to run “doesn’t change things for me at all.”
“I’m focused on my race. I’m focused on winning. I wasn’t waiting on whether Peter King was running or not running.”
Asked about the potential for a large Democratic primary field now that the seat is open, she said, “You know that I’m a veteran, so I’m prepared for anything.”
Some Democrats were also speculating about a possible run by Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini, who has led a countywide law enforcement crackdown on the MS-13 street gang. Another prominent Democrat, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, tweeted Tuesday that he wouldn’t run.
Democrats are pointing to King’s decision to retire rather than run in 2020 as a sign that Republicans are worried.
“The fact that King is retiring rather than try to win that seat for one more term tells you everything you need to know about the changing demographics of the district,” said Democratic political consultant Rebecca Katz.
Republican political consultant Tom Doherty said the race will also draw attention from national Republican leaders at a time when polls indicate some declining support for Trump in suburban districts he won in 2016.
“It seems like a district Republican think they can hold on to,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk.”
Potential Republican candidates include state Sen. Phil Boyle, state Assemblyman Mike LiPetri and the Suffolk County Legislature’s minority leader Tom Cilmi, all of whom said Tuesday they were considering a run. Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joe Saladino is also being talked about as a candidate.
LiPetri said whoever runs needs to be able to transcend party lines as a candidate, though he predicted that “this seat will be retained as a Republican seat.”
Larry Levy, the executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said the winning candidate “needs to be someone who both appeals to the base and is capable of winning the middle-of-the-roaders.”
King served 14 terms in Congress in districts whose boundaries changed over time through redistricting, partly by touting his bipartisanship and pushing hard on immigration and crime.
He appealed to moderate voters in his district by breaking with Republicans on issues such as previous government shutdowns. But King, a Trump ally who opposes impeachment, also rallied conservative support by holding hearings — criticized by human rights activists — in which he claimed that “radical imams” are controlling U.S. mosques.
“Anybody who is trying to succeed Congressman King would probably start by saying, I want to be a Congress member in the mode of Peter King,” said John Flanagan, the minority Republican leader in the New York State Senate. “He sort of withstood the test of time.”