Taking the stage at the Zionist Organization of America gala, Rep. Lee Zeldin sounded thrilled to introduce the keynote speaker: Steve Bannon. He showered praise on the head of Breitbart News for standing up for Israel against the Palestinians, concluding with a decisive statement that Bannon, accused of turning Breitbart into a platform for the anti-Semitic “alt-right,” was in fact an ally to all those gathered for the right-wing Jewish organization’s celebration.
“As a Jewish man,” Zeldin attested, “Steve Bannon is a friend of Israel and he is a friend of Judaism.”
Now, Zeldin has eagerly accepted Bannon’s offer to lend his support to a Zeldin fundraiser on Thursday, December 14 in New York — the first such event Bannon will attend for a 2018 congressional candidate. Just like Zeldin’s early and steadfast loyalty to President Trump, his close association with Bannon entails political risk, and opportunity. It solidifies his conservative credentials — Zeldin is an ostensibly moderate Republican in a blue state — but that might strengthen the hand of Democratic rivals eager to peel off his moderate and independent supporters.
The risks for Zeldin appeared to grow much greater on Tuesday when voters in deep-red Alabama elected a moderate Democrat in a race against Bannon-backed Judge Roy Moore. Initial analysis showed Republican-leaning suburban voters swung dramatically away from the GOP.
Last month’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, in which Democrats made a surprisingly strong showing, also revealed that Democrats can win races by tying the local candidate to Trump, especially in blue states. Democratic candidates for sheriff and district attorney won those jobs in Zeldin’s eastern Long Island district.
“If the lesson he learned from November’s elections was to double down with Steve Bannon, then Congressman Zeldin will flunk the midterms,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York Democratic strategist.
Zeldin did not respond to the Forward’s request for an interview.
At the heart of New York’s first congressional district is a strong, white working-class constituency that tends to vote Republican and holds conservative views. The district also includes Democratic-leaning communities and rural voters, and has a strong, but seasonal, liberal constituency that spends its summers in the Hamptons and goes back to vote in New York City. Zeldin won the district with an impressive 17% margin in 2016 after more narrowly defeating Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop two years earlier.
He’s still considered the favorite to win in 2018, with The Cook Political Report ranking the race as “likely Republican.”
But he has weak spots beyond Bannon.
“… the real issues that will drive the race are taxes and health care,” said Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which put Zeldin on its target list for 2018.
Democrats have high hopes for one of Zeldin’s opponents, Kate Browning, a former school bus driver married to an officer of the New York City Police Department. A 12-year Suffolk County legislator, Browning made clear from the start that she was out to challenge Zeldin on pocketbook issues like health care.
“She’s a major tick-up, a proven vote-getter,” Stavisky said.
Zeldin supported the failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Lee Zeldin cares more about voting his party line and becoming part of the Washington Republican leadership than about standing up for what’s best for his constituents,” Browning wrote in her first fundraising email, trying to position Zeldin as a Washington insider.
Perry Gershon, who is Jewish, is running against Browning for the Democratic nomination. Gershon is a newcomer to the district who has nonetheless shown impressive fundraising capabilities.
In November, when the House took up Trump’s tax reform bill, Zeldin knew he had to be cautious, and he voted “no.”
“I just have too many constituents who are going to see their taxes go up,” Zeldin explained before the vote.
If the bill becomes law, and Zeldin’s constituents, who already bear one of the highest tax burdens in the country, end up paying more, those constituents could punish the party by voting out Zeldin.
Critics say Zeldin’s departure from the party line over the tax bill was done with a nod and a wink, and that Republican leadership, well aware of his struggle back in the district, allowed Zeldin to make a point while knowing they had a safe majority without him.
Will Long Island Rep Face Music For Embracing Trump — And Bannon
On the other hand, he did technically break with them.
House Speaker Paul Ryan canceled a fundraising event for him in an apparent retribution for Zeldin’s vote against the tax reform.
“He stood up to Trump on the tax issue, and that gives him standing with his voters,” campaign consultant and New York politics expert Hank Sheinkopf said, adding that defying Trump and the Republican establishment on the tax issue could be more significant than embracing Trump and Bannon on issues of race and nationalism.
Zeldin, 37, was raised in a Reform Jewish home, although he recalled his family attending, at times, a Conservative synagogue in his hometown of Shirley, New York, on Long Island. Zeldin is still a member of B’nai Israel Reform Temple, where he had his bar mitzvah and where his twin daughters now attend Sunday school. Zeldin’s wife, Diana Zeldin, is a Mormon. In Congress, Zeldin serves as co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus. There is only one other Republican Jew in the House, David Kustoff of Tennessee.
Jewish voters don’t make up a significant portion of his district, yet Zeldin spends time and effort in advocating pro-Israel positions. He also views Trump and Bannon through the pro-Israel lens, explaining that Bannon is “someone who passionately speaks to me about the need to combat the rising [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement, strengthening our relationships with our friends like Israel,” and explaining that people are not aware of Bannon’s views and background.
Zeldin, according to campaign filings, has already raised more than $1.5 million for his re-election bid, while on the Democratic side Gershon received $500,000 in contributions. Browning has been in the race since only October, so there is no available fundraising data for her campaign.
“His voters don’t care about Bannon,” Sheinkopf said. “Zeldin won’t be easy to beat.”
Will Long Island Rep Face Music For Embracing Trump — And Bannon
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.