(Bloomberg) -- On paper, New York’s 1st Congressional district reads like a winner for Democrats. For one, it’s home to more of them than registered Republicans. And its voters favor abortion access for women, care deeply about the environment and boast high levels of union membership.

Yet the Long Island district — spanning most of Suffolk County to the Hamptons — has eluded the grasp of Democrats for a decade. It’s a failure critics chalk up to the party’s inability to field a candidate appealing to independents, who make up 30% of the electorate.

Nancy Goroff and John Avlon both believe they can solve that predicament. The two contenders — with many similar policy proposals but starkly different backgrounds and personal styles — are facing off Tuesday in a primary over who is more electable.

The winner will try to win the House race in November against Republican Nick LaLota, a first-term incumbent and Navy veteran. It’s one of several contests in New York that could be competitive, with power over Congress hanging in the balance. 

Elsewhere in New York, progressive “Squad” member Jamaal Bowman is embroiled in an acrimonious battle against challenger George Latimer for the 16th Congressional district, encompassing some parts of the Bronx and Westchester Counties. It became one of the most expensive House primary contests in U.S. history.

Also read: Westchester, Bronx Democrats Spar Over Israel in Costly Race

And in New York’s 22nd Congressional district, near Syracuse, Democratic State Senator John Mannion is fighting Dewitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood to determine who will take on vulnerable first-term incumbent GOP Rep. Brandon Williams. It’s a battleground district that President Joe Biden won in 2020 by 12 points, and is seen as one of Democrats’ likeliest potential pickups in their effort to retake control of the House in November.

Competitive Seat

As of early Tuesday morning, just over 7,750 people had voted in the 1st district primary, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections. That amounts to a little more than 4% turnout so far among the area’s roughly 185,000 active registered Democrats.

The Democratic establishment has lined up behind Avlon, 51, a journalist and CNN political analyst. His supporters say he has the bipartisan bona fides that will make him palatable to the district’s independent voters, who had helped Donald Trump win the areas currently included in the district by single digits in 2020. 

Avlon is married to Margaret Hoover, conservative host of PBS’s Firing Line and great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover. He’s a founder of the third-way political party “No Labels” who worked in former New York City Mayor and Republican Rudy Giuliani’s administration as a speechwriter.

Goroff, meanwhile, is a 56-year-old researcher and former chair of the chemistry Department at SUNY Stony Brook who won the Democratic primary in 2020 but lost the general election after loaning her own campaign more than $1 million. She’s reprising her 2020 campaign, recycling her minimalist lawn signs and running ads with the tagline “mom, scientist, teacher.” 

But despite Goroff’s deep roots in the district and previous candidacy, critics are painting her campaign as the quixotic quest of a wealthy candidate with virtually unlimited resources who is out of touch with the electorate and what it takes to win in November.

The Democrat, who reported assets between $11.5 million and $53.5 million to the House Ethics Committee, was formerly married to Glen Whitney, a mathematician and former analyst at Long Island-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and many of her donors have ties to the company.

“If we’re going to have a shot at making that seat competitive, we’re going to need a candidate that will appeal to moderates,” said New York State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, who is one of many elected officials, including current Reps. Tom Suozzi and Greg Meeks, who’ve endorsed Avlon.

New Residents

It was Suozzi’s win in a special election earlier this year for the House seat vacated by Republican George Santos that inspired Avlon to jump into the race. He told Bloomberg at the time that the victory showed that “with the right candidate who can energize the center,” Democrats can flip seats in swing districts.

The 1st district has been redrawn multiple times in recent years, but it has also fundamentally changed since the Covid-19 pandemic, when thousands of New York City residents relocated to the city’s suburbs, some temporarily and some permanently.

From 2020 through 2022, Nassau and Suffolk Counties saw a net migration of nearly 100,000 people moving onto Long Island from New York City, according to a report published by the Long Island Association of New York.

Whoever triumphs in Tuesday’s race still faces an uphill battle against LaLota. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the November race as “likely Republican.”

LaLota has spent his first term towing the line between supporting Trump and trying to appeal to moderate voters. He was among several Republicans who voted to oust Santos in the wake of accusations of fraud and revelations he’d lied extensively about his career and personal background. But LaLota was also among the first Republicans to endorse Trump’s 2024 re-election bid.

Celebrity Endorsements

Avlon has racked up a string of boldface donors since entering the race in February — actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and investor and venture capitalist Alan Patricof each held fundraisers for him the weekend before the primary.

Major names in media and finance have contributed to his campaign, including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, former news anchor Connie Chung and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

In their argument against Goroff’s electability, Avlon supporters point to her ten-point loss to incumbent Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin in 2020. 

“When you lose by ten, you don’t get to do it again,” Avlon said in an interview Monday. 

“We have all the momentum and enthusiasm and endorsements heading into Election Day,” he said, noting the broad swath of elected Democrats and organized labor groups who have backed his candidacy, including four members of New York’s Congressional delegation and the influential New York State United Teachers union.

Negative Ads

Goroff says she has a better shot of winning against LaLota than she did against Zeldin, and is wielding her personal wealth in an effort to prove it.

Avlon’s supporters are “assuming that a telegenic white guy is what we need to win elections,” Goroff said on a steamy Saturday the weekend before the primary, as she sat inside the small white wooden building that serves as Democratic party headquarters in East Setauket, home to both Renaissance Technologies and the SUNY Stony Brook campus where she spent most of her career. 

“We have a lot of working people who are not necessarily excited about the TV guy from Manhattan,” Goroff said. 

She has spent heavily on a barrage of negative television advertising, attacking Avlon over his past work for Giuliani and “No Labels,” and branding him as an outsider who “spent decades in Manhattan.”

That’s a potentially damaging line of attack in a district where tensions can run high between the wealthy Democrats who summer in the Hamptons and the unionized teachers and professors who live in the district year-round. (Avlon bought a home in Sag Harbor in 2017, and began living full time in the district only recently).

Goroff has loaned her current campaign $1.2 million, and touts endorsements from 15 elected officials and candidates, each of whom have received campaign donations from her.

In recent weeks, Avlon’s campaign has accused Goroff of trying to buy the primary outright. In a 30-second television ad titled “Negative Nancy,” Bridget Fleming, who won the Democratic primary in 2022 but lost to LaLota and has since endorsed Avlon, describes Goroff’s negative advertising as “pathetic and sad.”

“Avlon brings a lot to the table — he’s created a buzz, he’s gotten a bushel of boldfaced endorsements and he’s raised a lot of outside money which indicates that smart political people, or those at least with deep pockets, are interested in him and maybe even believe in him,” said Larry Levy, Executive Dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. 

“By the same token, this is a district where outsiders have never done well,” Levy said, noting that the last Democrat who held the seat, former Representative Tim Bishop, was, like Goroff, an academic whose family had lived in the district for generations.

(Adds early voting figures in the seventh paragraph, and details about the 1st district in paragraphs 15-17.)

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