When Rep. Peter King, New York’s longest-serving Republican member of Congress, announced his retirement last month, he set his party up for a battle that could define the 2020 elections.
King is among the dwindling contingent of moderate House Republicans fleeing Washington under Trump. And his suburban Long Island district, like many similar areas across the country, is increasingly alienated by the president.
While many Republicans want a candidate with bipartisan appeal to run for the seat, others are pushing for a replacement to reflect the president and his Republican party.
Last month, the conservative Club for Growth commissioned a poll asking registered GOP voters in New York’s second district who they’d pick in a primary race between former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and wife of Eric Trump.
The poll found that Lara would beat out Lazio in a primary by 30 points. The 37-year-old Manhattanite, who’s serving as an adviser and surrogate to the presidential campaign, has since said she’s not currently running for the seat, but she wouldn’t rule out the possibility in the future.
“If there were ever an opportunity for me to represent people of this country in the place that I live, it would be an honor to do it, and I would never close the door on that,” she told McClatchy last week.
The poll reflects a key reality: that President Donald Trump remains deeply popular among loyal Republicans. But on the flipside, it’s unclear just how much he’ll repel moderates and energize Democrats to vote him out in districts like King’s across the country next year.
‘A quintessential suburban soccer mom district’
New York’s second congressional district, which encompasses parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties, is purple suburban territory.
A longtime conservative bastion, it went for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 even as King was reelected by healthy margins. And after Trump won the district in 2016, King faced his most competitive Democratic challenger last year.
“It’s a quintessential suburban soccer mom district,” Steve Israel, a former congressman whose Long Island district overlapped with King’s, told Insider. “It’s a district where you’ve got to show your independence from both parties.”
New York State has moved dramatically to the left over the last couple of decades — no Republican has won a statewide race since 2002. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in both Nassau and Suffolk counties.
But King had long enjoyed high approval ratings among his constituents and drew praise from top Democratic leaders in the state.
“Pete King was an icon in that district, but also well-respected on both sides of the aisle, well-respected by swing voters, moderate voters of both parties,” Jon Reinish, a New York Democratic strategist, told Insider. “He was that district and that district was him.”
But under Trump, moderate districts like King’s are increasingly turning away from the president and the national Republican party.
Skepticism about a Lara Trump candidacy
The idea that the Republican Party is looking to move sharply rightward on Long Island caught both Democrats and some Republicans off guard.
The local Republican Party on Long Island concedes that many of their faithful voters are repelled by some of the president’s tactics and rhetoric.
Jesse Garcia, chair of the Suffolk County Republican Committee, drew a distinction between his constituents’ support for the administration’s policies and their support for Trump as an individual and a personality.
“People are responding to his very positive economic policies and his staunch positions on national defense and putting America first,” Garcia told Insider. “They may not agree with his tweets, but they agree with his policies.”
Garcia said Lara’s potential candidacy is “a hypothetical that really doesn’t need to be discussed” and that his discussions with Donald Trump Jr. have led him to believe the president’s family is “singularly focused” on the presidential race.
The president’s transformation of the GOP is having an impact in his home state. To the chagrin of some of the state’s center-right Republican leaders, the state party selected a Trump loyalist, Nick Langworthy, to take over leadership earlier this year.
Israel said he thinks the Club for Growth’s poll was a way to push the party to put up a right-wing candidate in the district. Others say it was simply a way for the group to curry favor with the president.
Lara’s success on Long Island would rely both on her father-in-law’s popularity in the district and her somewhat untested skills as a campaigner.
“Trump carried the district in 2016 but his brand has taken a hit in other swing suburban areas, so her chances of running a successful campaign will depend in large measure on how the family name plays on the south shore of Long Island,” Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, told Insider. “And of course, there’s the question of how she performs on the campaign trail, which can be a real test for a first time candidate no matter how well funded.”
Because of her national profile and direct connection to the president, the race would inevitably attract massive sums of money on the Democratic side, forcing Republicans to match that spending. Lara would also likely face a slew of brutal ads and personal attacks. The fact that she doesn’t live or work in the district could also be used against her.
“A presidential election is always a referendum on the president, but this becomes even more of a referendum on the president,” Israel said. “This becomes ground zero for a referendum on the president if a Trump family member is the candidate, and that attracts a ton of energy on the left and the right and a ton of money from throughout the country.”
The DCCC celebrated the idea of a Trump family member running for King’s seat.
“King’s retirement has made Republicans desperate to find a recruit in this district,” DCCC spokeswoman Christine Bennett said in a statement. “If they think putting an out-of-district and out-of-touch candidate up is the answer, we won’t complain.”
Reinish said it’s “very, very, very unlikely” that Lara could become the next member of Congress from New York’s second district.
“I think that she would lose terribly in a very embarrassing way in the general election,” he said.
Israel added that Lara would probably dislike the often frustratingly powerless job in Congress, particularly as a member of the minority.
“There must be other more lucrative and fulfilling jobs at her disposal than taking the Delta shuttle between New York and DC twice a week and being booed at at Eagle Scout dinners,” he said.