Why One Congressional District Keeps Going to Two Different Parties

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On election night last Tuesday, the Associated Press declared Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of eastern Long Island the winner over Republican challenger, Randy Altschuler, 51 to 49 percent. By the weekend, a review of ballots reversed that, with Altschuler leading Bishop by more than 300 votes. 

That sudden switch over who controls the first Congressional district is, in some ways, what's been happening in the district for years.

The first Congressional district encompasses two extreme ends of the economic spectrum, even by New York standards. On one end is the tony playground for New York's wealthiest — the Hamptons — complete with celebrity-filled night clubs and beach-front mansions populated by out-of-town politicians looking to raise seed money for national campaigns.

But that's not where you'll find the voters in the district.

"The heart of the district is a suburban, almost exurban community with a relatively lower family income level than the rest of Long Island," says Larry Levy, Dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.

The bulk of the voting population in the area comes out of Smithtown and Brookhaven, both of which have histories of electing Republicans. The areas are sprawling and packed with single-family homes, full of people who felt the brunt of the housing market's collapse and home foreclosures.

That's fertile breeding ground for Tea Party sentiments, says Levy.

So, there are rich vacationers who pay taxes, but don't often vote there, combined with frustrated homeowners. There's also one other less-obvious pocket in the district: farmers.

"Suffolk County is still one of the largest producing agricultural counties in the state," says Republican consultant Rob Ryan, who worked for Altschuler's campaign. The other thing Ryan noticed about the landscape out there: it's full of reminders of how bad the economy is.

"To give you an idea," he said, "our headquarters is a place that used to be a pet store, pet supply company. That was vacant until we moved in." The other major storefront in their shopping strip sat vacant, he said.

Republicans have a edge of 30,000 voters by registration, but operatives on both sides of the aisle openly admit there's not much brand loyalty among registered voters. They'll split tickets and cross party lines without hesitation, so the numbers advantage only goes so far. There's a fierce independent streak among voters there. (In fact, residents in at least five towns on the eastern end of Long Island have long grumbled about breaking away from Suffolk and forming their own county.)

This has led to some confused politics. Back in 1994, when the GOP tidal led by Newt Gingrich's Contract with America ushered in a wave of new conservative Republicans, Mike Forbes won the NY1 seat. But as time wore on, Forbes grew disenchanted with the hard-line, conservative stance of his party. So, he switched.

The one rule about switching parties — especially if you're doing it while in office — is to do it only if you can guarantee you won't face a primary from someone in your new party. Forbes wasn't that lucky.

"He lost a Democratic primary by about a 100 votes to a very liberal, progressive candidate," said Suffolk's Democratic County Chairman Richard Schaffer. "That's how we got [Republican Felix] Grucci."

Because Democrats nominated a "very liberal" candidate, the Republican challenger at the time was seen as more moderate — capturing the votes within his party, and from Democrats who had been supportive of Forbes.

So, Grucci came to office having benefited from a splintered Democratic opposition. But in his first reelection bid in 2002, he proved a less-than-stellar tactician.

"Grucci used attack ads saying as an administrator at South Hampton College that [then-challenger Tim] Bishop was soft on rape," recalls Newsday political columnist Rick Brand. The ads "backfired" on Grucci. And Bishop won.

Bishop served four terms, and hadn't faced a serious reelection challenge until this year. Officials are combing through the votes and no winner been declared, although Altschuler's lead, for now, is holding.

But the district could swing into Democratic hands in the next elections. 2012 is not only a presidentially year. but there's the wild card of Alec Baldwin, actor and Long Island resident, who has expressed interest in the seat.