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A Jewish Republican’s All In For Trump. The Strategy’s Got Rewards — And Risks

Congressman Lee Zeldin is a Republican in the very blue state of New York. The Jewish politician won a third term in the House by only four points in 2018.

Yet Zeldin has seized the spotlight in the season of impeachment by defending Donald Trump — reviled by liberals — and criticizing the Jewish Democrat who is leading the impeachment inquiry. Congressman Adam Schiff of California wants to “get the United States of America drunk on his favorite cocktail,” Zeldin said this past Sunday on a television talk show.

“There’s three ingredients,” Zeldin said on “This Week.” “One is cherry-picking leaks, second is withholding facts, and three is just outright lying.”

Zeldin is tying his fortunes to Trump’s at a tricky time, and in a tricky place. A likely Democratic challenger, who came close to beating Zeldin in 2018, is using Zeldin’s embrace of Trump as his main rallying cry. The national Republican party has already identified his district as one in need of extra support in order to win. Yet analysts say that Zeldin’s move is a smart survival strategy that will appeal to Trump’s solid base in the area and keep him in the good graces of the president himself.

“Zeldin’s biggest strength and weakness are the same. It’s Donald Trump,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Zeldin represents New York’s 1st Congressional District, which occupies most of Suffolk County on eastern Long Island. It’s an unusual area, politically, with both liberal hubs like a state university and redder rural areas.

“It’s probably one of the truest swing districts in the country,” said Mike Dawidziak, a longtime pollster and political strategist who has worked on campaigns in the district for forty years.

Indeed, the National Republican Congressional Committee has put Zeldin’s district in its “Patriot Program,” which tells donors which candidates most need money and volunteers.

Zeldin’s district has lots of Democrats — 155,000 of them, compared with 171,000 Republicans, according to data compiled by the New York State Board of Elections in 2018 — but when it comes to Trump, it makes sense to ignore them and instead exploit Republican enthusiasm for him.

Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016. And a poll from Siena College released Wednesday found that 81% of Republicans in New York State opposed impeachment.

“Zeldin’s going to win by having solid support by Republicans, and he’s going to keep that support because Trump is so popular among Republicans,” said Jeffrey Segal, chair of the department of political science at Stony Brook University.

Zeldin also has personal reasons to put himself out in front for Trump.

“If you’re an elected Republican, and you want to be in the good graces of the president, then you go on cable TV and defend him as much as possible,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a respected politics newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Zeldin’s support of Trump, and the Trump administration’s support of him, stretches back to May 2016, when he endorsed Trump ahead of many Republicans.

Zeldin values loyalty, Dawidziak said.

“He’s a veteran. He has that code of honor: You don’t desert somebody,” Dawidziak said.

The only risk Zeldin runs in embracing Trump so emphatically is with independents, said Dawidziak. His district, and Long Island as a whole, generally breaks down as a third Democrat, a third Republican, and a third independent.

But it’s probably still a good bet, Dawidziak said. Independents are skeptical of the Democrats’ secrecy in taking testimony from people close to the Ukraine imbroglio, Dawidziak said — which could explain Zeldin’s focus on the process of the impeachment inquiry. Indeed, a poll earlier this month found that nearly two-thirds of independents said they don’t trust Democrats in the House.

“He’s attacking the quote-unquote kangaroo court,” Dawidziak said. “And in the polling I’ve seen, thats a winner.”

Schiff in particular is vulnerable to these charges because he knew about a key document in the impeachment inquiry before it was officially filed, and because he is holding closed-door hearings. Schiff says he is keeping the proceedings private in order to prevent administration officials and others giving testimony from tailoring their remarks and what they reveal.

It’s also possible that Zeldin could make himself more vulnerable by energizing the Democrats in his district by elevating the issue of impeachment at home.

“The question is, how much energy is there on the Democratic side that may rebound against him?” Levy said. “It’s really too soon to know.”

“If impeachment falls apart, he will probably win,” Levy continued. “It’s gonna come down to which [party] can get out their voters, and that in turn is gonna have a lot to do with the fortunes of Donald Trump.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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