Can The 'Pink Wave' Prevail On Red Long Island?

Aug 16, 2018

A theme in this year’s midterm elections is progressive women challenging entrenched Republicans. That’s what’s happening in Long Island’s 2nd Congressional District. Liuba Grechen Shirley is taking on thirteen-term incumbent Peter King. 

And that’s almost what happened in Long Island’s 1st Congressional District. But instead, the wealthy businessman Perry Gershon won the primary and will challenge two-term incumbent Lee Zeldin.

Why did this happen in one district but not the other, and what does it mean come November?

For John Levin and his wife, it started with a random invitation to a political cocktail party and fundraiser.

“We just sort of looked at each other and we said, ‘You wanna go? OK,’ and we went.”

The fundraiser was for Liuba Grechen Shirley. They’d never heard of her before, they don’t even live in the district, they live in Norwalk, Connecticut. But they were inspired. They ended up donating more than $6,000 and plan to max their donation before November.

“Liuba represents a class of new politicians and lots and lots of women who have decided to enter politics now, and I think it’s a great thing and worthy of broad support, and we selected this candidate to support.”

That’s what happened in the 2nd Congressional District. In the 1st Congressional District, there were three women running in the primary. Two were considered progressive, one was a novice. Not all that different from Grechen Shirley. But they didn’t win.

Eileen Duffy, a liberal activist on the East End, says the women in the 1st Congressional District just didn’t have the enthusiasm Grechen Shirley has.

“Liuba has this fervor, and people can feel that. She is paying attention. She is working really hard. She is reaching out to everybody. And she started early.”

Part of it, Duffy says, is party politics. Grechen Shirley was essentially shut out by the party so she had to campaign aggressively in order to get on the ballot. In the 1st Congressional District, two of the women came up through the party. Duffy says they never needed to build an extensive grassroots organization.

“They had already experienced politics in a different way. And they did well. It was a different way of reaching people I think this time around.”

Kate Browning offers a different take. She was one of the women who lost the 1st District primary, and the one most favored by the party bosses. She credits the campaign that Grechen Shirley is mounting, but says it would never work on the East End.

“Congressional District 1 is more Republican than Democrat. People in this district are not ready to accept those extreme progressive ideas.”

On top of that, she says, was the money. Perry Gershon, the candidate who ultimately won the primary, outspent Browning four-to-one. Most of that came from his own personal wealth. Gershon’s campaign attributes his win to connecting with voters and his position on the issues.

In both districts, analysts expect Republicans to keep control. However, it’s not clear if those predictions account for the wave of progressivism that swept one district, but not the other.