Democratic challenger Anna Throne-Holst in Long Island’s First Congressional District is seeking to overcome incumbent Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin’s 15-point lead in the polls by arguing that Zeldin and Donald Trump are one and the same.
In one campaign ad, voters are told that Zeldin — a first-term congressman serving a swing district representing Suffolk’s East End — has said “Hillary Clinton belongs in prison” and that President Barack Obama “is a racist.”
“When you stand by Donald Trump and you sound like Donald Trump, you are no better than Donald Trump,” the announcer intones. “Lee Zeldin is Donald Trump.”
Zeldin, 36 and the only Jewish Republican in the House, declined in a phone interview with The Jewish Week to talk about Trump, saying it was not a topic that had been among those specified in an earlier e-mail.
(Zeldin on May 4 had endorsed Trump, saying that although there might be “things or statements” of Trump’s that he might disagree with, “he is a better candidate by far than Hillary Clinton.”)
When then asked a question his campaign had been told about in advance regarding the “anti-Semitism and bigotry the presidential campaign has unleashed” — Zeldin asked what the question referred to.
Told it pertained to last month’s firebombing of a Republican campaign headquarters in North Carolina and an Anti-Defamation League study finding that Trump supporters had unleashed anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists who wrote about Trump, the phone line went dead.
Asked in an email why, his press secretary replied: “Because you weren’t asking about any of the topics you said were the purpose of the interview.”
Zeldin’s decision to distance himself from Trump in a district in which both he and Trump are expected to win is emblematic of the position of many other Republicans in an election year that pits two of the country’s most disliked presidential candidates against each other. An ABC News/Washington Post Tracking poll released Monday found that the unfavorable rating for Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, was 60 percent — a new high — surpassing that of Trump’s unfavorable rating of 58 percent.
In fact, when House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared on Fox News Tuesday, he revealed that he had already voted for Trump as promised, but he didn’t mention Trump by name.
“I already voted here in Janesville [Wisconsin] for our nominee last week in early voting,” he said. “We need to support our entire Republican ticket.”
Ryan, who has clashed with Trump on numerous occasions throughout the campaign, said he would be campaigning for House Republicans in coming days but would not appear with Trump.
The ABC News/Washington Post poll was taken Oct. 26-29 and included two nights of results that came after the FBI disclosed it was again looking into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state. The poll found that enthusiasm among Clinton supporters had slipped slightly in the wake of that announcement. (An average of all polls Monday showed Clinton ahead by about 3 points.)
The poll found also that Trump has greater support among Republicans than Clinton has among Democrats — 89 percent versus 87 percent. In addition, Clinton’s support among liberal Democrats slipped from 95 percent to 88 percent, while Trump’s support among conservative Republicans jumped from 89 to 94 percent. And he holds a 17-point edge among independent likely voters.
Nathan Klein, a Republican Jewish pollster with Olive Tree Strategies in Washington, D.C., said that although he has not seen data on the Jewish vote this year, he would expect to see “more Jewish Americans oppose Clinton-Obama foreign policy because of the Iran deal than who voted for Romney in 2012.”
And he said he expects that to be reflected also in Senate races, such as the one in Florida where Republican Marco Rubio is seeking re-election in a district with a large Jewish population.
Rubio too has promised to vote for Trump, but gave what was called the “most lukewarm endorsement possible” by saying there were only two legitimate candidates on the ballot and that he would not vote for Clinton.
Republican congressional candidates distancing themselves from Trump is not unusual in this election year, according to Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein.
“Around the country you see Republican congressional candidates completely confused about how to handle the fact that the standard bearer for their party is so bad,” he told The Jewish Week.
“Many of them will continue to support him and take a hit in the polls as a result,” he added. “Many flip-flopped in their position on him — at first saying they were supporting him and now making a vague statement that they are not sure whom they will vote for. It doesn’t look like profiles in courage — and voters see that.”
There are no new polls measuring Jewish support for Trump and Clinton. The last national poll of Jewish voters, taken in August by the American Jewish Committee, found that 61 percent favored Clinton compared with just 19 percent for Trump. And a poll of Jewish voters in Florida that Gerstein conducted in August put Clinton’s lead at 66 percent to Trump’s 23 percent.
“The environment since the polls has improved for Hillary Clinton nationally in the aftermath of the debates,” Gerstein said, citing her good debate performance and the numerous controversies surrounding Trump.
He said Jewish support for Clinton today “should be where it was when we polled or in a slightly improved position based on how she has performed nationally.”
Meanwhile in Long Island congressional elections, Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I., said “the Democrats are trying to nationalize the election while the Republicans are trying to localize it by bringing up the records of the Democratic candidates when they were local office holders.”
Nevertheless, he said, the “top of the ticket is likely to affect the outcome more than any other single factor.”
He noted that Zeldin’s district “is perhaps the only congressional district on Long Island where allying with Donald Trump could be a positive.” He explained that it is “the most conservative [district] with the most working class whites and a strong local Republican organization. That is why most political operatives believe Zeldin is the favorite.”
By early this week, 20 million voters had already cast their ballot, including 40 percent of Florida voters. In Florida, Republican voters were outnumbering Democrats.
But Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist who is running a Clinton super PAC targeting Jewish voters, pointed out that although historically more Republican Jews than Democratic Jews vote early, “this year there is a substantially smaller difference than usual. And that is seen as a big advantage for the Democrats.”
Asked about the Jewish vote nationally, Rabinowitz said: “The Jews vote like everybody else, only more so. And if you look at mainstream polling, you can extrapolate what it means for the Jewish vote.”
National polls have not shown any appreciable voter swing since last Friday’s FBI announcement. And Gerstein said, “Jewish voters are a base constituency and we see base constituencies rallying around their candidate as we get closer to Election Day. That’s typically what happens, and the question is whether the Republican base will consolidate around Trump or not because of the difficulties so many people have with him as a person.”
As the presidential campaign headed into its final week, Trump and Clinton each stressed their views on the economy, health care and other issues.
In response to questions posed in an email to Zeldin, the Long Island congressman did address issues regarding the Middle East, a topic that had been listed in the original email to his campaign. The campaign of Throne-Holst also provided email answers, including to the question about the bigotry and anti-Semitism the presidential campaign has ignited.
The campaign wrote that Trump has been “normalizing hate speech and dividing our country along racial and ethnic lines. We need serious leaders in Washington who do not support Donald Trump or his principles so this kind of ugly language is not brought into the mainstream. …
“In Congress, she will also work to strengthen hate crime laws to ensure that racists, bigots and anti-Semites are held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.”
Although Throne-Holst, 56, the Southampton Town supervisor from 2009 until 2015, trailed Zeldin by 15 points in a Newsday/Siena College poll taken about a month ago, pollsters said they believed she could close the gap if she was more well known – 43 percent of respondents said they had no opinion or did not know her. In recent days, both Newsday and The New York Times have endorsed her.