Three of Long Island's four congressional seats are open this year, making the region’s midterm races a key battleground in the fight to control Congress.
Although Long Island residents historically lean white and Republican, it has now become “the quintessential swing area…that’s decided national elections, ” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
WNYC was live Thursday from Suffolk County Community College for its broadcast of "All Things Considered," where host Sean Carlson spoke with experts and students about what matters to them in this election and what is at stake for Long Island.
How Long Island politics have changed
Suffolk County voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election from 1996 to 2012. But in the last two election cycles, Suffolk residents, who are mostly blue-collar workers, were more open to the message that former President Donald Trump was selling.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin gained ground on incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul by focusing on crime. The issue still resonates with Long Islanders because of their proximity to the city, Levy said. And it also harkens back to the latter half of the 20th century on Long Island, when people fled the five boroughs to escape crime.
“There’s a paranoia almost about New York City problems following them out to their paradise,” Levy said.
In New York’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Suffolk County, the race is between the incumbent Republican Rep. Andrew Gabarino and his Democratic challenger Jackie Gordon. There are plenty of Trump Republicans who are unhappy with Garbarino over his votes for infrastructure and certifying the results of the 2020 election, and it is possible that deep red Republicans will vote for Zeldin and skip out on the congressional race to send a message, Levy said.
What we learned about young voter participation
The "All Things Considered" team asked Suffolk County Community College students if they were paying attention to the midterm elections, and most said they weren’t. But they shared some of the issues they cared about.
For many students, the cost of living was top of mind. Patrick Brezinski, a first-year student, said he has been paying close attention to how prices are escalating in the last few months. He said that after he graduates, “I need to find the best job possible. I need to stick with it and I can’t afford to screw it up.”
The biggest pet peeve for Brandon Santos, who is studying criminal justice, are the roads.
“When you’re driving on a lot of these roads, it’s like all messed up — your car will be bouncing up in the air,” he said. “That’s number one, and school lunches. Little things like that will make a difference.”
Long Island’s economic politics
Many assume that Long Island is full of wealthy people, but it’s more like “a checkerboard of very affluent areas next to very, very poor areas,” said Tom Flesher, a professor in Suffolk County Community College's economics department. Some spots have been hit by unemployment above the national average and these areas are where a Trumpian brand of economics tends to resonate.
Health care and retail are some of the biggest industries drawing students’ attention on Long Island, according to Jason Cascone, the assistant dean of student services and director of counseling. Although the cost of living has increased over the last few years, Cascone said students seem ambivalent about the state of the economy.
Because of higher costs all around, local business owners are looking to diversify their offerings and income streams to avoid going under, said Su Chen, a local business owner and realtor.
Which way will Latino voters break?
More than 70% of Brentwood residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census, making Brentwood a bellwether when it comes to where those groups will be swinging this election, according to Levy.
Jesse Garcia, chairman of the Suffolk County Republicans, said he has seen a bit of a tilt by Latinos joining the Republican Party. He's formed a council within the party with the aim of attracting more Latinos to GOP voter rolls across the county. Unlike the Suffolk County Democratic Party website, the Suffolk County GOP’s website has a section written in Spanish.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party has been focusing on living wages, access to affordable health care, and affordable housing, according to Rodman Serrano, a Suffolk County community organizer for Make the Road Action.
Close to 60% of Latino voters are registered Democrats, while 9% are registered Republicans and nearly 30% are unaffiliated.
But this year’s Democratic numbers dropped in Brentwood compared to last year’s, while the number of registered Republicans jumped. Still, the GOP’s numbers are still nowhere near those of Democrats.