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John Avlon rides turnout, 'electability' to Dem primary win, analysts say

Scott Eidler

Former CNN anchor John Avlon won the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary by 40 points on Tuesday, buoyed by higher turnout and after emphasizing that he was more likely to flip the seat than chemist Nancy Goroff, political analysts said Wednesday.

In mailings, commercials and stump speechs, Avlon repeatedly asserted that he was better poised than Goroff to win in a general matchup with freshman Rep. Nick LaLota (R-Amityville).

Goroff won the 1st District primary in 2020, but lost the general election that November to then-Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) by a margin of nearly 10 percentage points, a gap of 37,000 votes.

Avlon, of Sag Harbor, defeated Goroff, of Stony Brook, by a margin of 70%-29% on Tuesday, according to unofficial returns from the Suffolk County Board of Elections.

Of the district's 183,115 Democratic voters, 24,383 voted in the 1st District primary, representing 13.3% of eligible voters, according to John Alberts, the Suffolk County Board of Elections' Democratic commissioner.

The turnout was higher than in 2020, when 9% of district Democrats --14,423 of 154,920 voters -- cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Goroff defeated three other candidates in that primary, including Perry Gershon, Democrats' 1st District nominee in 2018.

Christopher Malone, associate provost and a professor of political science at Farmingdale State College, said voters connected with Avlon's message by overwhelming margins.

“He communicated more clearly about his electability: To flip this seat you need someone who is going to win, not someone who is some purist or ideologue," Malone said Wednesday. “That’s precisely what Democrats are looking for. They’re looking for pragmatic electability. In these competitive races, especially on Long Island, that's what voters are looking for. Someone who is going to win."

Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who works primarily with Republican candidates in Suffolk, agreed.

“What really counted in this race was winnability, who could win in November, I think that’s what the Democrats really cared about," Dawidziak said. “Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, Goroff has lost one shot at this, and not by a close number, and I think most Democratic voters looked at Avlon as a better candidate for the general election.”

Goroff declined to comment Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

Avlon said he crisscrossed the district, securing endorsements from members of Democratic committees and clubs including in Southold, Southampton and East Hampton. “I just think that’s essential for building a durable coalition that we got in the race," Avlon said in an interview Wednesday.

As a political action committee supporting Goroff spent on ads attacking Avlon, he decided against going negative, he said. The pro-Goroff ads criticized Avlon for serving as a speechwriter and policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, when he was New York City's mayor.

“It took a degree of discipline and contrary to some strong advice I got not to return going negative in kind,” Avlon said.

As of June 5, Avlon raised $1.76 million during the campaign, while Goroff raised $2.3 million, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Goroff loaned her campaign $1.2 million, according to the FEC data.

Historically a swing district, the 1st has been in Republican hands since 2014, when Zeldin unseated veteran Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

The district spans from parts of Huntington Town through Montauk and includes large swaths of central Brookhaven. The district has 195,332 registered Democrats, 191,491 Republicans and 174,734 voters who are not registered with a political party, according to state Board of Elections data. In 2020, Biden lost the district to Trump by less than 2 percentage points, election data show.

Richard Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, stayed neutral in the race.

On Wednesday he predicted that Avlon will draw significant attention and contributions from across the country given his high-profile. With national interest and money, Avlon could force Republicans to deplete resources to vigorously defend the seat.

"The overwhelming number of people aren't looking to go through an exercise. We can't be responsible for us not winning the House of Representatives," Schaffer said. “He was very poised, sometimes you have these high-level TV commentators come in and they don't get the average everyday voter. John was able to quickly pivot from the green room at CNN to the main streets of Huntington, Brookhaven and Southampton. And you don't learn that.”

Jesse Garcia, chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee, downplayed Avlon's win.

"The winner of the Democratic primary is immaterial to us. The committee and the LaLota campaign were prepared to wage what will be a successful campaign against either candidate," Garcia said Wednesday.

Former Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat who represented New York's 3rd District from 2001 through 2016, said Avlon masterfully built a local coalition to counter Goroff's network of supporters concentrated around Stony Brook.

"The First Congressional District is by its very nature defiantly independent. And that plays whether we're talking about Huntington or Southold," Israel said. "Pragmatism beat purity in that congressional district."