In a state that’s the deepest shade of blue, the 1st Congressional District on Long Island’s East End has a different color scheme altogether. It’s gray — the political designation for a swing district that can just as easily go blue as red.
The 1st CD — which includes the tony Hamptons, the middle-class neighborhoods of Lake Grove and Centereach, and rural farming areas like Mattituck and the North Fork — narrowly went for Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry by a single percentage point in 2004. But Democrat Barack Obama carried the district by 4 percent in 2008.
And in congressional elections, it has swung back and forth like clockwork between the two parties since Democrat Ernest Greenwood was defeated in 1952 by Republican Stuyvesant Wainwright, who in turn was defeated in 1960 by Democrat Otis Pike.
This year’s election is expected to be no different.
Rep. Tim Bishop, a Southampton Democrat running for his sixth term, is fighting back against a strong challenge mounted by St. James Republican Randy Altschuler, whom Bishop defeated by a mere 593 votes two years ago.
Spending by outside interest groups has already exceeded $2.2 million — double the amount spent in their last go-round.
Although a Siena poll last month put Bishop ahead by 13 percentage points, Altschuler’s campaign is now touting two recent polls that put their candidate in the lead — one by 5 percent and the other by 3 percent. If Altschuler wins, he and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia would be the only two Jewish Republicans in the House.
In the Bishop-Altschuler race, each candidate has acknowledged and expressed regret that the campaign has been particularly nasty.
“This has been an ugly, bruising campaign,” Bishop reportedly said during a recent debate. “I think Mr. Altschuler regrets that; I regret that. I think even within the context of an ugly, bruising campaign, I think family should be off-limits.”
He said he was particularly upset that even before he ran a single campaign ad, Altschuler held a “press conference in front of my office in Patchogue to attack my daughter and my wife.”
He was referring to charges that Bishop’s wife, Kathy, and daughter, Molly, his political fundraiser, have benefited from his political connections.
But Altschuler pointed out that his campaign started out positive, with his first ad including pictures of him and his family and talking about his plans to create jobs.
Jobs have been the central thrust of Bishop’s campaign as it was two years ago. He claims Altschuler in his previous position worked as the CEO of a company that helped companies outsource office work overseas. Altschuler this year has stressed his most recent position as chairman of an electronics recycling company, which he claimed was commended by the Obama administration for creating 400 “green” jobs. Together with his earlier company, Altschuler said he has created more than 1,100 jobs for American workers.
Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant and pollster in Sayville, L.I., pointed out that “Bishop hit Altschuler on outsourcing two years ago” and said he is recycling the same charge this year.
“Negative charges have a shelf life,” he said. “People say they don’t need to hear it again, what else do you have?”
But he said Bishop might be hurt this year by an alleged ethics violation the Altschuler campaign is asking Congress to investigate. A constituent asked Bishop’s help in securing the necessary permit to launch a fireworks display from his home to help celebrate the bar mitzvah of his son. Three days before the event, Bishop’s daughter called the constituent in her capacity as the campaign’s fundraiser and suggested the family make a $10,000 contribution to the campaign. Experts say that a campaign contribution in return for an official act or as a thank-you for an official act may be considered a crime.
Dawidziak said that given the closeness of the election two years ago, any one of several variables could make a difference — in addition to the campaign rhetoric itself.
First, he said that unlike two years ago when Bishop ran on the Democratic and Independence lines, Altschuler has the Independence line this year. He said the line brought Bishop 7,000 votes, giving him the election.
In addition, Dawidziak estimated that 5,000 Republicans in the district didn’t vote in the 2010 off-year election but could be expected to vote this year.
And Dawidziak said Romney is apparently running ahead of Obama in the district — one Republican pollster puts Romney ahead by 12 percent — suggesting a possible coattail effect to help Altschuler.
But Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, suggested that the election is a lot closer than the polls suggest.
“The poll that said Bishop was up by 13 points didn’t feel right, and the polls that show Altschuler up by as many as 5 points don’t feel right,” he said. “There are so few differences in the dynamics this year that there is no reason to think this won’t be another very close race.”
He acknowledged that the Independence Party line could be critical, but he questioned how many who voted for Bishop on that line two years ago “will now abandon him — it’s a lot fewer than you might think.”
Asked about the number of Republicans who didn’t vote in the off-year election, Levy said, “There are a lot of lazy Democrats too” who didn’t vote two years ago.
The fact that there is a presidential election this year, as well as a special election for supervisor of Brookhaven Town, could also increase voter turnout, he said.
“So there is a lot of activity this year that wasn’t there two years ago,” Levy said. “In the end, it could be decided by which party has the best get-out-the-vote and absentee ballot effort.”