Fight For the First


By Karl Grossman

The final count in the lst Congressional District race is 98,316 for Democrat Tim Bishop and 97,723 for Republican Randy Atschuler—a razor-thin Bishop win by just 593 votes. Never in recent years has the margin of victory been as tiny in the lst C.D. Meanwhile, Suffolk Republicans see a big lesson from the small Bishop win.

Political blood was smelled in the lst C.D. before the campaign began. Indeed, four-term incumbent Bishop’s perceived vulnerability was the reason Mr. Atschuler, after considering running for Congress in several areas, moved to Suffolk from New Jersey—to take Mr. Bishop on.

Now, after Mr. Bishop’s thin win—contested for more than a month by Mr. Atschuler who only conceded last week—the GOP sees Mr. Bishop as more vulnerable than earlier thought.

“Absolutely I think he is extremely vulnerable,” said Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle last week. Mr. LaValle emphasized that with nearly 200,000 votes cast, the Bishop edge was miniscule. It was .003 percent. “That’s remarkably low.”

There are numerous causes as to why. Clearly, the GOP tsunami this year which resulted in a gain of 63 Republican seats in the House of Representatives was a substantial factor. There was the discontent of many with President Obama, a major reason for the tsunami. The enormous amount of money spent in the race by Mr. Atschuler—reportedly $2.8 million of his own money between primary and general election campaigns for a total of $4.2 million—was a big factor. However, Mr. Bishop spent plenty, too: $2.5 million. For both camps, it was mostly for advertising.

Then there was the resurgence of Republican strength in Brookhaven Town which makes up two/thirds of the lst C.D. by population. The district also includes Southampton and East Hampton and the other East End towns and most of Smithtown. Mr. LaValle also cites “a slipping in constituent service” by Mr. Bishop’s Congressional office which has become “politicized.”

Candidate Atschuler ran with an albatross on his back: having made his fortune in outsourcing jobs overseas, especially to India—which Mr. Bishop focused on and made his central issue. It undoubtedly cost Mr. Atschuler votes.

What about a nominee next time without this kind of handicap? A leading elected government official in Suffolk said last week: “If the candidate had Mike Fitzpatrick’s resume and Atschuler’s money, Bishop would have lost.” Being referred to was four-term State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick who won re-election last month with a startling 72% of the vote. GOPer Fitzpatrick had sought to run against Mr. Bishop this year but withdrew after Mr. Atschuler got Conservative support.

A popular figure in Smithtown—the son of a former town supervisor—the affable Mr. Fitzpatrick said last week that “my phone has been ringing” about his being a candidate the next time Mr. Bishop is up for re-election. “Am I interested? Yes. There will be conversations over who will be the best candidate in 2012.” Also, “we’ll hear what [Suffolk Conservative Party Chairman] Ed Walsh is going to do. If he says he’s going to go with Atschuler again, we’ll see.” Conservative backing is seen as important for a Republican to win in the lst C.D.

Will Mr. Atschuler take a path tread in the lst C.D. a half-century ago by Democrat Otis Pike after he lost in 1958? Mr. Pike spent the next two years doing non-stop campaigning—including constant civic group appearances. Then, in 1960, he ran again and this time won—narrowly, by 2,737 votes—over four-term Republican incumbent Stuyvesant Wainwright II. Mr. Pike then comfortably held the seat until retiring from it 18 years later.

Mr. LaValle notes that it is unknown whether Mr. Bishop “will run for re-election in 2012” and also stresses that “a lot happens in two years.”

These are also politically volatile times in the U.S. If the GOP persists in such moves as what Democrats are now decrying as extending “tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” there could be a new tidal wave—this one favoring Democrats. And, in a switch, Mr. Bishop could be in a strong position for re-election. But it sure doesn’t look that way now.