Opinion: Democrats the Underdogs in C.D. 1

Enthusiasm among many on the left on eastern Long Island about taking the congressional seat now held by Representative Lee Zeldin notwithstanding, Democrats in the First Congressional District remain underdogs. Both CNN and the Cook Political Report recently rated his seat likely to remain Republican, considering the candidates’ fund-raising, election history, and registration data. This means the Democratic opposition must take swift action if it hopes to oust an incumbent whose position appears secure.

Momentum may be shifting nationally toward a Democratic landslide in the midterm elections but that is not necessarily the case in the First Congressional District, which includes the Towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Southold, Riverhead, Brookhaven, and most of Smithtown. 

According to the New York State Board of Elections, there are substantially more Republicans registered in the district, and, when Conservative Party voters are included, the pluses for Mr. Zeldin are even greater. In 2016, when facing Anna Throne-Holst, he was lifted by some 23,000 Conservative votes and cruised to victory. When he defeated Representative Tim Bishop in 2014 the story was much the same. 

Democrats may not care for Mr. Zeldin, but he has proven a formidable vote-getter with a strong publicity machine behind him and multiple talking-head appearances on Fox News. The fact that he has been a strong supporter of a deeply unpopular president may not be enough to upset Mr. Zeldin’s demonstrated ability to win elections. 

Provided President Trump is still in office in November, which is not a sure thing, excitement among Democrats and fatigue among some Republicans make this off-year election hard to predict. When Mr. Zeldin defeated Mr. Bishop in 2014, he did so with only about 77,000 votes. Two years later, when Mr. Trump won in the First Congressional District by nine points, Mr. Zeldin had the support of more than 158,000 voters, more than there are registered Democrats in the entire district. 

What this means for those hoping to give Mr. Zeldin a swift kick toward a well-earned private-sector career and help the country restore order and respect for the rule of law and this country’s partnerships abroad, is that the focus must be on increasing voter participation by a significant margin, not just on who the nominee will be. And in this, the party as a whole needs to show more initiative. 

Registering voters is the first step. This should include New Yorkers with houses on the North and South Forks who are eligible to vote here but historically have not. New York State makes it easy to change one’s registration in person and via the mail. First-time voters, especially the young and members of immigrant communities, must be reached as well.

Antipathy for President Trump alone will not be enough to get a First District Democrat to Washington. An aggressive ground game to build turnout will have to be won first — from Montauk all the way to Smithtown.