ALBANY — Republican Rep. Peter King’s decision to retire at the end of his 14th term creates an opening on southern Long Island that could very well wind up being New York’s most hotly contested congressional race in 2020.
King has been one of the loudest Republican Party voices on foreign policy and a defender of President Donald Trump, representing a district that has shifted more Democratic in recent years.
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“It’s going to be an extremely difficult seat for the Republican Party to hold,” former Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle said. “Compounded with the fact that we’re in a very blue state and there will be any number of states up for grabs across the country, this might not be the highest priority for the RCCC. … There’s any number of retirements coming — a lot of seats in play, so this doesn’t come at a great time for the Republican Party.”
Babylon Councilwoman Jackie Gordon had been the only Democrat declaring for a bid against King before his announcement Monday. The Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran announced a challenge in May and already has endorsements from national Democratic groups such as EMILY’s List. But King’s departure will likely lead to the field expanding quickly.
“He’s always been his own guy and that explains his ability to survive and thrive in a landscape that is increasingly hostile to Republicans,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “Now that he’s leaving, this seat becomes more competitive and should attract A-list marquee candidates and millions of dollars from around the country.”
King’s retirement at the end of 2020 brings an end to the career of one of the brashest, most accessible and most complex members of New York’s congressional delegation in recent memory.
Many Democrats have painted him as a hard conservative. But while he fits that description on issues like policing and has been one of the nation’s leading voices on a right-leaning foreign policy for decades, he’s also repeatedly been ranked one of the most moderate members of Congress. He has reached across the aisle on topics like aid for Sept. 11 survivors and is the only remaining House Republican who voted against Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
He first publicly acknowledged that he might reconsider his plans to run for reelection in September when daughter Erin King Sweeney announced that she would leave her seat on the Hempstead Town Council to move to North Carolina, where her husband had received a new job. It had long been assumed that she would eventually run to succeed her father.
“The prime reason for my decision was that after 28 years of spending 4 days a week in Washington, D.C., it is time to end the weekly commune and be home in Seaford,” wrote King, 75, in an early-morning Facebook post. His wife, “Rosemary and I decided that, especially since we are both in good health, it is time to have the flexibility to spend more time with our children and grandchildren. My daughter’s recent move to North Carolina certainly accelerated my thinking.”
The most widely mentioned name in the hours after King’s departure was Liuba Grechen Shirley, his Democratic opponent last year. King defeated her by about 6 points, after beating his prior three opponents by an average of 27.
Grechen Shirley, whose campaign successfully pushed for a 2018 FEC decision that lets candidates spend their campaign funds on child care, has spent the past year creating a national PAC focused on helping Democratic mothers win office.
“I’ve heard from many encouraging supporters across the district, and with so much on the line for our community, I am seriously considering another run for Congress,” Grechen Shirley said in a statement.
Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini’s name was also floated by a supporter of his. A former police commissioner and an assistant U.S. attorney under Preet Bharara, Sini first won the office in 2017.
Other possible Democratic candidates mentioned by people familiar with the district included Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, Suffolk’s Democratic chair; and state Sen. Monica Martinez.
On the Republican side, it’ll be a harder haul than what King faced, Levy said, but that doesn’t mean there’s not widespread interest from officials in both Suffolk and Nassau counties.
LaValle floated state Sen. Phil Boyle, Oyster Bay Councilman Steve Labriola and Islip Town Board Member Trish Bergin as contenders who would be interested with party backing. Several sources mentioned Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi as a favorite for local officials. National Journal reported that former Rep. Rick Lazio, an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000 and governor in 2010, was also considering a run.
Boyle, when reached for comment, didn’t push back on potential interest in the spot.
“Today is a day we honor our veterans, I’ll think about running for Congress tomorrow,” he said.
The past few years haven’t been great for Republicans in King’s part of the state, which consists of exactly the types of suburbs that Democrats have been making major gains in nationwide. In 2015, the GOP controlled each of the four state Senate seats that intersected with his district. Now, they hold one of them.
“It still leans Republican, but it’s definitely competitive,” Nassau County Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs said of the district. “It was less competitive when Peter King was there because he had a long-standing following.”
For the first time in three years, Republicans didn’t have a disastrous night on Long Island in last week’s local elections, but there still aren’t many people who are confidently betting Republicans will regain momentum in the state’s suburbs in 2020.
“This is a rare, winnable open seat,” Levy said. “This is going to be a race that will be watched around the country, it will attract support far beyond the district, perhaps ending up as one of the highest-spending congressional contests around the country. Because it’s winnable for both parties — and losable for both parties — leadership and influencers around district will try to find best known best-funded candidates they can.”