PATCHOGUE, N.Y. (AP) — It's one of America's quintessential congressional swing districts.
For seven decades, five Republicans and five Democrats have alternately held the House seat representing the 1st Congressional District on eastern Long Island, including one — Michael Forbes — who switched parties.
With the election still 16 months away, Democrats are already maneuvering for a shot at another turnover, lining up to challenge freshman incumbent Republican and Iraq war veteran Lee Zeldin. Most are expecting a withering battle that could cost more than the nearly $15 million spent a year ago.
"That's insane for a congressional seat: $15 million?" said retiree Dave Flowers as he walked out of a bagel store in Patchogue. "What that money could do to actually help communities alone? It seems a little bit out of control."
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said freshmen congressmen are typically the most vulnerable, and because 2016 is a presidential election year — when voter turnout is higher — two strong Democrats have already entered the race and are chasing "the big bucks as early as possible."
The diverse district encompasses miles of suburban sprawl, rural wineries and farms, as well as the high-end Hamptons. Its boundary has been largely unchanged for decades, and Republicans hold a slight advantage over Democrats in voter registration, although about one-third of all voters in the district — 122,491 — are not registered with any political party.
Anna Throne-Holst, the Southampton town supervisor, has already received backing from the influential Emily's List, a Washington-based group that works to elect Democratic women. She faces a primary next year against Dave Calone, CEO of a venture capital firm. He has headed the Suffolk County Planning Commission since 2008, but this is his first run for public office.
Both challengers used the same words in separate interviews this week to criticize Zeldin, calling his conservative views "out of step" with constituents in the district. Throne-Holst opted in May to enter next year's House race rather than seek a fourth term as town supervisor this fall.
"I wasn't going to do both," she said. "That would be disingenuous and wrong to me."
Calone said he's running so early because he "needs time to get out and meet the people. I need them to get to learn about me and my background. This is a big district, and I need to get out there and begin listening and sharing ideas."
Zeldin, a 35-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq and is a major in the reserves, made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2008, then spent two terms in the state Senate before handily defeating six-term Democratic Rep. Timothy Bishop.
He has made frequent appearances on Fox News, where he has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration's foreign affairs policies, particularly those involving the Middle East. He is currently the only Jewish Republican in Congress, and scoffs at the early rumblings to replace him.
"No one is obsessed with November 2016 quite like the couple of Democrats who really, really want to be a congressman," Zeldin told The Associated Press in a telephone interview this week. "I am focused on doing the best job possible through this entire term. When the time comes next fall, I will be ready."
Zeldin, a rising star in the party, will hold a fundraiser later this month featuring House Speaker John Boehner; the following day former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is scheduled to attend another.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee regularly issues missives blasting Zeldin for his votes and views, recently criticizing him for meeting with the Long Island chapter of Oath Keepers, a group of retired military, police and fire department employees who say they are committed to fighting "the tyranny we experience in our local, state and federal governments."
Zeldin dismisses the criticism as party politics. "I meet with a very wide range of groups from the entire ideological spectrum," he said. "This is another example of the hypocrisy. Everyone deserves to be represented."
The 2014 House race saw nearly $15 million spent between the primary and general election — much of it from outside interest groups on both sides.
Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island-based political consultant who works mostly for Republicans, said the cost of next year's race is "almost incalculable."