Primary in Staten Island -- Trump Country -- Worries GOP

Primary in Staten Island -- Trump Country -- Worries GOP
Jan Somma-Hammel/Staten Island Advance via AP
Primary in Staten Island -- Trump Country -- Worries GOP
Jan Somma-Hammel/Staten Island Advance via AP
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New York Republicans are hitting the panic button over the June 26 congressional primary in Staten Island. A recent NY1-Siena College Poll shows former congressman and convicted felon Michael Grimm leading Rep. Dan Donovan by a whopping 10 percentage points. In Staten Island, sometimes referred to as the Forgotten Borough, President Trump’s approval rating tops 80 percent among Republican voters. The GOP primary has become a de facto contest of who will be the most loyal Trump supporter in Congress.

Donovan’s team is quick to point out that the NY1-Siena poll was taken before the president tweeted out his endorsement of Donovan and emailed a letter of support for the incumbent to his Staten Island supporters who have attended Trump rallies. In addition, next week two Washington heavy-hitters, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, are both planning to headline Donovan events.  

Throughout the primary cycle, Trump has urged voters to support Republicans considered to have the best odds of winning in November. This strategy worked in the West Virginia Senate primary, where criminally convicted former mining executive Don Blankenship lost after the president voiced opposition his candidacy. 

In the NY1-Siena poll, when asked who has the best odds of winning against a Democrat in November, respondents chose Donovan, 46 percent-35 percent. However, when asked who would work better with Trump, they overwhelmingly said Grimm, by a margin of 54 percent-29 percent. People involved with the challenger’s campaign say that their internal polling has Grimm up by 15 points, while the Donovan campaign says new polling, which incorporates the president’s endorsement, has him ahead. Regardless of the numbers, no one in either camp denies Grimm has built up enormous momentum.

In 2014, he won re-election by 13 points even though he was under a 20-count federal indictment. He eventually resigned from Congress after being convicted for tax fraud and served seven months in prison. Donovan then won the seat in a May 2015 special election. “Grimm’s criminal record will not help President Trump be successful at draining the swamp,” said Jessica Proud, a Donovan campaign aide.

“Grimm is beloved on Staten Island, and to some, his trial seemed like a witch hunt,” Leticia Remauro, a political consultant and former Staten Island GOP chairwoman, told RCP. Grimm claims that President Obama’s Justice Department went after him because he was a strong critic of Obama – and makes a point of equating it to the current Justice Department investigation of Trump. One insider explained that the culture of corruption in New York is so prevalent that people will tolerate and even vote for known criminals. According to FiveThirtyEight, New York is ranked No. 1 for having the most elected officials convicted in federal court of corruption.

Grimm always seems to have legal troubles. In 2010, the FBI’s public corruption unit investigated allegations of campaign finance abuse involving a well-connected New York rabbi and a supposed shake-down of his congregation. During the current election cycle, Grimm is already being investigated by the U.S. attorney for filing fraudulent petitions and the Federal Election Commission has opened a case on campaign finance issues, said Proud.  “The drama with Grimm,” she added, “is never-ending.”

While Grimm is a charismatic candidate, he often seems to attract the wrong kind of attention. In 2013, the New York Post’s Page Six reported that then Congressman Grimm went into the bathroom of an upscale restaurant in Brooklyn with a female friend for a 17-minute interlude. While Grimm is not married, he denies anything untoward, claiming his pal wasn’t feeling well. (Customers at the bar who taped the encounter had a different impression.) In 2014, a video of Grimm went viral when he threatened to push a reporter off a balcony of the third floor of the Capitol after the State of the Union address.  

The fear among Republican officials is that Grimm could win the primary, but not the general election as a convicted felon. On the Democratic side, Max Rose is leading a six-candidate primary. He’s been endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as the strongest candidate to flip the seat from red to blue. Rose is a decorated U.S. Army veteran who received a Purple Heart while serving in Afghanistan. In mid-April, the Rose campaign announced he had nearly $900,000 cash on hand and had outraised both Grimm and Donovan. However, Rose is a moderate Democrat in a field of progressives, which may make it difficult to win a Democratic primary.

The Republican side has a similar dynamic. One of Donovan’s biggest problems is he voted against the most recent tax reform bill and did not vote to repeal Obamacare. He’s apparently having trouble convincing voters that he’s sufficiently supportive of the Trump agenda. In 2010, Grimm won his first term as a Tea Party Republican; however, the Donovan team points out that his voting record in Congress made him the third most liberal Republican in the House.

In the NY1-Siena poll, Grimm’s strongest demographic group was women, who prefer the ex-con over Donovan by 18 points. Grimm is a Marine veteran, former FBI agent, and a great talker. “He’s handsome, charming and women love him,” said one GOP insider. However, this demographic group often has the lowest turnout in Republican primaries.

Grimm has also gained traction in the district through old-fashioned retail campaigning. He’s got a strong ground game of yard signs, door-to-door canvassing, and volunteers handing out palm cards. He’s a tireless campaigner, and unlike Donovan, who needs to be in Washington, the challenger is ensconced in the district full time, working around the clock.

 “Grimm has created a persona of a scrappy New York street fighter and that appeals to Trump voters” said Remauro. In March, Donovan had trouble collecting enough petition signatures to get on the ballot. This was a wake-up call. Although Donovan is spending amply on digital media and television, some local GOP activists fear it’s not enough. As one Staten Island political operative complained, “Dan needs to up his visibility in the district.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article called Don Blankenship a convicted felon. In fact, he was acquitted of felony conspiracy charges in a 2010 West Virginia mine explosion. He was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge stemming from his role in the disaster.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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