How a Trump-praising Democrat could win a New York House primary

Ruben Diaz Sr., 77, is a socially conservative minister and Army veteran.

Ruben Diaz Sr. , a New York City Councilman who has praised President Donald Trump, and protested against gay marriage, could be the next Democrat sent to Washington from the South Bronx.

Diaz Sr., a socially conservative 77-year-old Pentecostal minister and Army veteran, has a history of inflammatory comments, and embracing Republicans over Democrats seeking higher office in New York and across the country.

But his decades in New York politics and commitment to community outreach has made him a fixture in the Bronx -- and could help him eke out a victory in the crowded 12-way primary to replace the retiring Rep. Jose Serrano in New York's 15th Congressional District, one of several high-profile and raucous House primaries taking place in New York on Tuesday.

"He is a right-wing Republican masquerading as a Democrat," said Ritchie Torres, a two-term city councilman who has been endorsed by the New York Times editorial board, who claimed that he's neck-and-neck with Diaz at the top of the field.

"There's a real risk that the bluest congressional seat in America could fall into the homophobic hands of a pro-Trump, [police union-backed] Republican," he said, pointing to the 2016 election results in the district, where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received the greatest share of the vote.

Diaz, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment or an interview, has ignited controversy repeatedly since he entered politics in the early 1990's. In recent years, he has said the 'homosexual community' controls the New York City Council andlikened abortion to the Holocaust, and was the only Democrat in the state Senate to vote against the legalization of same-sex marriage.

He has defended his views against gay marriage by touting his evangelical beliefs, and denied that he rejects gay people, pointing to members of his own family and staff.

"He's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the constituents in this district," Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former speaker of the New York City Council who is also running in the primary, told ABC News.

Sean McElwee, co-founder and director of progressive polling firm Data for Progress, has been one of several activists sounding the alarm about Diaz's chances to take advantage of the splintered field.

"He definitely has benefitted from the fact that he's in the community," McElwee said, noting his success in local and state races. "He's not winning because voters in the district share his views about gay people and abortion. He's winning in spite of those things."

In the final days of the race Planned Parenthood Votes and other national groups have poured money into attacks against Diaz Sr. and his record, spending nearly $630,000 leading up to Tuesday, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In interviews ahead of the primary, other candidates in the field rejected questions about dropping out, and dismissed concerns that they would splinter the vote and allow Diaz to emerge from the field.

"We'll focus on the energy and organization on the ground," said Michael Blake, a New York state assemblyman and Democratic National Committee vice chair who has been endorsed by Reps. Jim Clyburn and John Lewis, along with other prominent African-American members of Congress.

"Primaries are about voting with your heart and soul," said Samelys Lopez, a former Serrano staffer and democratic socialist who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. "I don't think that we should settle for a milquetoast corporate Democrat because you fear an outcome."

Another New York congressional race, to replace the Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, the retiring chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, also features a crowd of candidates, where the competitive nature of the race, together with an increase in mail-in voting as a result of the coronavirus could delay the results for weeks.

The race in New York's 17th district includes Mondaire Jones, a former Obama administration Justice Department official, and Evelyn Farkas, a national security and Russia expert who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon under Obama.

State Senator David Carlucci, another top candidate in the race, has fended off criticism from his opponents for working closely with Republicans in the state legislature in Albany, as a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference that allowed Republicans to control the chamber until 2018.

"My record is exactly why I should serve in Congress for this district," he said. "Whether it was Republicans in the majority, or Democrats in the majority, I found a way to deliver results."

Jones, a Stanford and Harvard Law School graduate raised by a single mother with the help of food assistance and low-income housing, would be the first gay African American man to serve in Congress, as would Torres.

He said the pandemic and economic inequalities it has revealed -- together with the renewed debate over racial inequality in the country -- underscored the need for more diversity in the halls of Congress.

"People who have been underrepresented in power, particularly people of color, should be allowed to show leadership at a time when the leadership that we've had for so long has failed," Jones said.

Farkas, who has been endorsed by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, has touted her strong relationships with Democratic leaders and members of Congress, together with her decades of experience in Washington and public policy.

"I am ready on Day One to take the baton from Nita Lowey and deliver for the district," she said.