Former CNN anchor takes on professor in primary aimed at finding Democrat who can win on Long Island

A former CNN anchor and a retired chemistry professor are facing off in a Democratic primary to pick a challenger to U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota in an eastern Long Island congressional district that has been in Republican hands for a decade.

John Avlon, who was a senior political analyst at CNN, is running in Tuesday's election against Nancy Goroff, a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University. She was the Democratic candidate in the district in 2020, but lost by about 10 percentage points.

Democrats have made the suburban New York City district a priority this year in their bid to reclaim a majority in the House of Representatives. It's one of several districts in the reliably Democratic states of New York and California that are seen as crucial to their chances.

The race could hinge on personality and voters' views about which candidate gives Democrats the best chance to win. Their positions on policy matters are so similar that a local newspaper, The East Hampton Star, headlined its story about a recent debate between them: “Avlon and Goroff Debate, Largely Agree.”

Many Democrats, including local officials and incumbent members of Congress, have lined up behind Avlon as a fresh face who might have a better chance of toppling LaLota, the Republican incumbent.

“Republicans didn’t think they’d have to fight in this district,” Avlon said in an interview. “They didn’t think they’d have a real fight on their hands and now they do.”

But Goroff isn't rolling over. She loaned her own campaign $1.2 million, according to federal records. Her allies have also sought to criticize Avlon for previously working for Republican politician Rudy Giuliani. Avlon had an early career job as a speechwriter for Giuliani when he was the mayor of New York City and then worked on Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign.

She said she's confident a Democrat can win in the district, which stretches from the sandy Hamptons on the eastern tip of Long Island more than 80 miles westward to the outer ring of commuter suburbs east of New York City.

“I think it’s very much purple and we are working to make sure that in this district, we activate people who want to see someone who’s working hard," Goroff said in an interview. "Whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, they’re looking for someone who is actually willing to do the work."

The question looming after the primary is whether a Democrat can retake the seat from a Republican.

President Joe Biden won the district in 2020 by a very small margin, but Democratic state lawmakers changed its borders slightly earlier this year to make it slightly more Republican, potentially giving other Democrats on the island a better chance at winning their races.

Since losing her election bid in 2020 to then U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, Goroff helped start an advocacy group that organizes around politically fraught school board races. Her campaign says she successfully helped defeat 20 right-wing candidates.

Avlon is best known for his time as a CNN personality, but he also worked as an editor at The Daily Beast, an online news site. He also helped create the centrist political group No Labels and authored books on political polarization.

Both Democrats favor protecting abortion rights and warn against what a federal government controlled by Republicans could do to curtail women's reproductive rights more broadly. Their criticisms of LaLota are similar, characterizing the freshman congressman as too deferential to Donald Trump and more interested in political stardom than getting legislation across the line.

Both candidates point to a host of explanations for why Republicans have thrived in recent elections on Long Island, which has been receptive to conservative candidates in recent elections. Their explanations include lagging Democratic turnout, the strength of particular candidates and voter fears about crime in New York City spilling over into the suburbs.

In a statement, LaLota said, “While they fight to see who can appease the far left the most, I’m focused on putting results over rhetoric and fighting for the community I grew up in.”

One exception to the Republicans' success was the recent special election in a congressional district once represented by George Santos that includes parts of the New York City borough of Queens and northern Long Island. In that race, Democrat Tom Suozzi, an established political figure in the area, defeated a lesser-known Republican, Mazi Pilip. He did so in part by running a centrist campaign that Democrats hope to replicate in other suburban races in the fall.

Avlon hopes to duplicate that winning formula. He often talks about how Democrats need to pull in moderates and independent voters, as well as some Republicans who have grown dissatisfied with the GOP under Trump.

“There's a reason I'm running as a common sense Democrat,” he said. “In any swing district the candidate and the party who seizes the center will win.”

Ed Cox, chairman of the New York Republican Party, said it's going to be difficult for a Democrat to win on the island this year, especially in this district, given its shift to the GOP over the last decade and its more Republican-friendly configuration after redistricting.

“Long Island is once again a Republican bastion,” he said.

Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press