Well before Representative Peter King announced that he would retire next year, enough evidence existed that his prospects for re-election on Long Island as a Republican were narrowing.
Like so many suburban areas around the country, Long Island is undergoing a profound political shift, a transformation evident in the voter rolls, in the county seats, in recent election tallies and in census data.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans on Long Island, a once unthinkable development in a traditional conservative stronghold where voters backed every Republican presidential candidate, bar two, from 1900 to 1988.
Last year’s midterm elections saw Democrats capture six of the island’s nine State Senate seats, helping the party gain control of that legislative body for only the third time in the last 50 years.
The shift mirrors a nationwide trend of historically moderate or conservative suburban voters now slowly tipping left. Just last week, those voters helped flip the Virginia statehouse, ousted the last Republicans in a Philadelphia-area County Council and appear to have unseated the Republican governor of Kentucky.
The pattern, if it holds, could prove decisive not only for the 2020 presidential election, but also for the makeup of each party’s base for decades.
“King’s retirement, from a heavily suburban Long Island district, underlines just how serious Republicans’ problems are in swing districts across this country,” Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
The numbers on Long Island enumerate the challenges for Republicans. In 1996, registered Republicans in Nassau County outnumbered the Democrats, 360,000 to 257,000. By this year, the number of Democrats had rocketed to 411,000. The number of Republicans, by contrast, had dropped by more than 30,000.
Republicans have fared slightly better in Suffolk County. There, the number of Republicans has grown to 332,000, from 314,000 in the same time — a number that seems encouraging only until one sees the Democratic jolt, to 366,000, from 204,000.
“For an old-timer like me, those numbers are almost incomprehensible,” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which is on Long Island. “It is not my mother and father’s suburbs, and it never will be.”
The enrollment shift is inextricable from the island’s rapid diversification, Mr. Levy said. In the 2000 census, non-Hispanic whites made up more than 78 percent of Suffolk County; by 2010, that number was less than 72 percent, and in 2017, 68.5.
“Because of demographic shift, more and more suburban districts are not swing districts anymore,” he said.
Mr. King’s district, which includes both Suffolk and Nassau Counties, is still viewed as swing. Democrats have just a 13,000-person edge over Republicans there, and the Cook Political Report, the independent election handicapper, rated it as “Lean Republican,” even after Mr. King’s announcement.
But Mr. King had seen firsthand the effect of Long Island’s shifting political allegiances.
In his first 12 re-election bids, Mr. King trounced opposing Democrats by double-digit percentage margins. Last year, a Democratic unknown, Liuba Grechen Shirley, lost to Mr. King by just six percentage points. The result was even closer in a neighboring district in Suffolk County, where Representative Lee Zeldin defeated Perry Gershon, a Democrat, by only four points.
Mr. King denied that fears of losing re-election motivated his decision. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Nonetheless, his retirement, coupled with those demographic shifts, has emboldened Democrats. Ms. Grechen Shirley said on Monday she was considering running again. Jackie Gordon, a Democrat already in the race, said the district needed representation that mirrored its population.
“I reflect more of what the district now looks like or is beginning to look like more and more,” said Ms. Gordon, who is black.
Still, the changes on Long Island belie a more complicated political reality — one that suggests that a transformation may not be as complete as some Democrats would like.
The newly elected Democratic state senators from Long Island have rejected key progressive initiatives in Albany, wary of alienating swing voters. And Democratic leaders have rushed to tamp down on concerns that the party is yanking moderate voters too far left, too quickly, even criticizing progressive activists who formed the heart of their blue wave victories last year.
“Long Island is a very bipolar place politically,” said Steve Israel, a former congressman from Long Island and former D.C.C.C. chair.
Some worry that the Democrats’ recent successes are not evidence of a long-term change, so much as a Trump-shaped blip on suburbia’s long record of moderation.
In 2017, the Town of Hempstead, which is more populous than Seattle, elected its first Democratic town supervisor, Laura Gillen, in more than a century. She appears to have been defeated last week, as was the Democratic town supervisor in the Town of Riverhead.
“What this year demonstrated was a rejection of the socialistic far-left policies that enabled all of those individuals to be elected to the State Senate,” said Jesse Garcia, the chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee.
Even progressive activists acknowledged the precariousness of their inroads. Jackie Burbridge, a co-founder of an Indivisible group in Mr. King’s district, called last week’s local election results disappointing and surprising. “It’s not game over,” she said of the Republicans. “They still have some influence.”
Perhaps the greatest unknown in predicting Long Island’s electoral future, though, is President Trump.
Mr. Trump has energized Republicans on Long Island more than any other presidential candidate in a generation: After supporting the Democratic candidate in the last five elections, Suffolk County backed Mr. Trump in 2016 by seven points.
But the president has also been the driving force behind the island’s liberal creep, raising questions about how long either surge will last after he leaves office.
“Were it not for Donald Trump, I don’t think you’d see the Democratic energy that we’re witnessing on Long Island,” Mr. Israel said.
That energy has created its own problems. In a sign of the optimism — some say overconfidence — the recent Democratic victories have inspired, progressive activists in New York have already begun floating primary challenges to the newly elected Democrats in the State Senate, slamming their cautious votes and likening them to Republican collaborators.
Democratic leaders, sensitive to the ammunition such a message could lend Republicans, quickly admonished the activists.
Mr. Garcia said he was confident the Republicans’ fortunes would rebound.
“Every political party will have its cycles and such. We have some minor ones,” he said.
He added: “The proof is in the results.”
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