Can Indicted Michael Grimm Still Win Re-election?

Can Indicted Michael Grimm Still Win Re-election?

By Scott Conroy - June 2, 2014

NEW YORK -- It could -- in theory, at least -- get worse for New York Rep. Michael Grimm in his campaign for re-election this year.  

But a growing number of the beleaguered Republican’s allies are no longer willing to stick around and see if the 11th District congressman devises new ways to self-destruct.  

Most of Grimm’s backers had been prepared to remain by his side, even after he was caught on camera threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony for asking a question the lawmaker disapproved of -- a public temper tantrum that might have made Bobby Knight blush. 

But when Grimm was indicted last month on 20 counts of federal fraud, national and local Republicans alike -- ranging from House Speaker John Boehner to Grimm’s own campaign manager, Bill Cortese -- decided that if the volatile congressman was going to keep his seat, he would have to do so on his own. 

And that’s precisely what Grimm intends to do.  

With nothing more to lose, the onetime front-runner has declared he will shake off those defections, ignore his dried-up campaign coffers and meet his Staten Island and South Brooklyn constituents face to face in an unlikely effort to remain New York City’s lone Republican congressman.   

It may sound like a far-fetched plan for someone facing the possibility of years in jail. But one person who does not believe Grimm’s political obituary has been written is his Democratic opponent: Domenic Recchia, a former City Council member. 

“This race is not over, alright?” Recchia said this week during an interview with RealClearPolitics at the Brooklyn Democratic County Dinner in the Mill Basin neighborhood. “He’s still on the ballot, and we have a race to run.” (The New York primaries will take place June 24, but neither candidate has any intra-party opposition.) 

The indictment accuses Grimm of concealing about $1 million in taxable revenue at a Manhattan fast-food restaurant he owned and operated from 2007 to 2010, while employing illegal immigrants, committing perjury and engaging in other offenses. 

After pleading not guilty to the charges, Grimm was released on $400,000 bail and vowed immediately not only to serve out the remainder of his term but to continue his re-election fight.  

No one is arguing that Grimm is the favorite in a race that was going to be closely contested even before his recent troubles. But national Democrats are still investing financially in the campaign, suggesting some uncertainty about how sure a bet his defeat really is.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this month allocated $950,000 for TV ads to run on New York City’s expensive cable market beginning in mid-August, and the pro-Democratic House Majority PAC has a six-figure ad buy in the works for the fall.

“Since Congressman Grimm's arrest, voters who have suffered through his reckless antics and irresponsible agenda are even more eager to vote him out of office,” DCCC spokesperson Marc Brumer told RCP. “Domenic Recchia is committed to helping families and small businesses recover from Superstorm Sandy and his attention will stay focused on working together to find solutions for the middle class.” 

A spokesperson for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which has shut down its activities on Grimm’s behalf, declined to comment on the race, and Grimm did not respond to a text message sent to his cellphone. 

But in private conversations, Democrats and Republicans alike noted that the incumbent’s image as a political street fighter might still resonate among portions of the electorate, particularly in GOP-leaning Staten Island, where about two-thirds of the district’s voters reside.

No recent public polls of the race have been released, and neither the Recchia campaign nor the DCCC have conducted their own internal surveys since Grimm’s indictment. Despite the common assumption that the incumbent’s numbers have tanked, the true state of the race remains a mystery and the Republican’s will to continue fighting is a near certainty.  

“Michael Grimm is relentless,” said Bob Liff, a New York City Democratic strategist.  “I think that he is his own worst enemy. I think he deserves his comeuppance. It’s not for me to say whether he’s guilty or not -- that’s for the process to play itself out. But I think that in Staten Island, Republicans will fight very hard for this seat because this is all they’ve got in this city.”

For Grimm, who is also facing a pile of legal bills, the most immediate challenge is continuing to get his message out across the district. With his own financial resources drained, he has dismissed the idea of getting any positive free media exposure; in a recent interview with Politico, he blamed his troubles on a political press that had “vilified” him.

But in the same interview, Grimm did not inspire much confidence when asked whether he is innocent of the criminal charges against him.  

“You know, uh. It depends on what you’re asking me of,” Grimm said, according to the article.

One of the only prominent political figures in the district who has remained vocal and unyielding in his support of Grimm has been former Congressman Guy Molinari, who has characterized the federal case as a political witch hunt.   

"He's like my son," Molinari said of Grimm in an interview with Geraldo Rivera after the indictment was handed down. "I love this man. I know him backward and forward. He's clean, he's honest and he loves his country." 

But given his current circumstances, Grimm is going to need more than a few loyal friends by his side if he hopes to stay within striking range of his opponent. 

For his part, Recchia told RCP that he intends to debate Grimm at some point before November.

“He’s still a Congress member,” Recchia said. “When I see him out, I say hello to him.” 

The Democratic challenger has been careful not to fire too directly upon what appears to be a sinking ship. In the interview, he alluded only in passing to the embattled Republican’s personal troubles: Noting that parents often tell him that bullying is a major issue in their children’s schools, he added, “And here you have on TV this congressman bullying a reporter.”

But Recchia declined to address the whispers that Grimm may not be psychologically up to the task of holding public office, suspicions that have simmered for years and exploded into public view after the balcony incident.  

Asked if his opponent was mentally fit to continue serving in Congress, Recchia smiled broadly and then deflected the question. 

“Listen, all I know is that I’m focused on myself -- what I’m going to do and how I’m going to work for this district,” he said.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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