Conservative anger attracts national attention, financial backing to district
Stephen Flanagan’s strategy worked.
The 55-year-old Suffolk businessman and conservative activist wanted to prove to the world that his congressman, four-term Rep. Tim Bishop, could be defeated, despite scant interest from national Republicans.
So Flanagan and his group, the Conservative Society for Action (CSA), whose 3,000 members meet monthly in a rented American Legion hall in West Islip, hatched a plan to attract national attention to the district and lure credible candidates to the race.
They swarmed Bishop’s first summer town hall meeting in June, mobbing him as he arrived and then chanting epithets inside. Police had to be called to escort the congressman from the event.
Footage of the protest spread like wildfire across the Internet and cable news. The National Republican Congressional Committee circulated the video among its donors. Conservative activists across the country mimicked the strategy, fanning a national phenomenon.
And suddenly Bishop, who won by healthy margins in each of the last four elections, became a target.
“We did target him for removal, and we felt that the first step was to create a vulnerability. That’s when we came up with the town hall protest concept,” Flanagan said. “The hope at that point was that, once it became clear that he was vulnerable in his position, it would attract a wider field of candidates and financial support going forward.”
Now, the unrest Flanagan’s group has stirred on the normally sleepy East End has attracted national attention from Republican and Democratic leaders, who see Bishop’s seat as one of a few dozen that could help shift the balance of power in Washington. The contest has also become a national bellwether for the relevance of the right-wing agitators and the ability of national Republicans to channel widespread frustration into electoral success.
“That put a spotlight on the district that had not been there before,” said David Wasserman, the House editor at the Cook Political Report, which has tagged Bishop’s district as a possible swing seat. “Republicans did some more prying into this district to try and gauge whether it was a sort of one-time-only thing, or whether skepticism toward Democrats is more widespread.”
Republicans in Washington and Suffolk say they found the latter, and as a result Flanagan and his allies have secured all of what they wanted and more: a credible Republican candidate, financial backing from wealthy GOP patrons and, at last, the interest of the national party.
Randy Altschuler, a Wall Street entrepreneur and Republican bundler, has emerged as the early favorite among local activists and GOP operatives in Washington, who believe he can meet the all-important benchmarks that determine a candidate’s credibility: endorsements, infrastructure and cash.
“With Randy, it changes the dynamic completely,” said Assembly Member Phil Boyle, who has managed several Republican congressional campaigns in Suffolk. “This is Tim Bishop’s worst nightmare.”
Altschuler has also demonstrated considerable progress toward a crucial benchmark many of his predecessors have promised to meet but failed: At least $2 million in cash-on-hand, the minimum the NRCC prefers to see before committing to a challenger. Altschuler’s campaign announced earlier this month that he has already collected a quarter of that, much of it from his own pocket.
“There’s been a lot of positive support from the national party,” Altschuler said.
An NRCC official confirmed that Altschuler had met with Republicans in D.C. and that, so far, his campaign had reached or exceeded each of the benchmarks national GOP operatives had laid out for him.
“He is impressing people in the first district and he’s generating significant momentum,” said the official. “He’s put up some impressive numbers and an impressive infrastructure.”
Altschuler’s campaign is being run by Chris Maloney, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a former aide to the NRCC, who has helped Altschuler build a sizeable ground operation and connections to party officials in Suffolk and D.C.
Altschuler has engendered valuable goodwill among local lawmakers and activists by loaning his 100 or so volunteers out to their campaigns. His team hopes that strategy will help him avoid the problems that have plagued upstate Republican congressional candidates Jim Tedisco and Dede Scozzafava, who have suffered from the perception that they were forced upon their districts by national Republicans.
“My team has gotten involved with a lot of local races,” Altschuler said. “You have to show that you’re invested in the local party.”
But some Republicans remain hesitant to embrace Altschuler because of his Wall Street background. During the presidential campaign, when Altschuler served as a bundler for John McCain, reports emerged that a company he founded, OfficeTiger, had helped outsource American jobs to India. Democrats have already promised to make that a central theme of their attack ads, which has given some local Republicans pause.
“There’s a lot of this coronation going on,” said one Suffolk Republican who has stayed out of the race. “I think he probably has a consensus of support, but there are people who are concerned.”
Those people are instead turning to an alternative candidate, George Demos, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who worked on the investigation of Bernard Madoff. But Demos was late in announcing his candidacy, has raised only a paltry sum and has been outpaced by Altschuler in winning endorsements and assembling a campaign operation.
John LaValle, the Suffolk Republican chairman, said that would make catching up very difficult for Demos.
“Randy Altschuler has clearly established his ability to raise funds, and in addition to that he’s put together a very solid campaign team,” LaValle said. “We’ll see how George proceeds.”
What Demos lacks in money and infrastructure, he hopes to make up in grassroots energy. Demos is a member of Flanagan’s group, the CSA, and has already courted the organization’s members on several occasions for their endorsement.
But so has Altschuler, which Flanagan and his cohorts take as evidence of their growing influence.
“I think they know that we’re responsible for taking the first step,” Flanagan said of the candidates. “Our message is clear: If you don’t represent us, we’re going to come after you.”
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