Republicans Are Hard at Work to Turn Staten Island Blue

(Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA via AP Images)

Former Representative Michael Grimm, a Staten Island Republican who went to jail for felony tax fraud, announces his candidacy for his old job on October 1, 2017.

Is Donald Trump an albatross around the neck of congressional Republicans? By appealing to his base and embracing the polarizing strategies that he has brought to new heights, will they cost themselves the last few swing districts in Trump-abhorring blue states?

We New Yorkers might have the best view of the GOP’s struggle to stay afloat in America’s big cities right here on Staten Island. Republican Dan Donovan, who has represented New York’s 11th Congressional District for all of a term and a half, is in the fight of his political life in the June 26 GOP primary.

Our ex-con ex-Congressman, Republican Michael Grimm—fresh out of jail—is running against Donovan to reclaim his old job. Grimm has gone full fascist in order to win the backing of former White House consigliere Stephen Bannon, as part of Bannon’s effort to destroy what’s left of the Republican establishment.

Grimm gushed over Bannon’s early and enthusiastic endorsement. His campaign materials studiously avoid any policy stances of substance. Instead they emphasize his past military and law enforcement credentials and—of course—putting America first. He has pledged—and maintained—fidelity to what he calls “President Trump's agenda,” adding, “Anyone that's against that agenda needs to get out of the way.”

On the Democratic side, Purple Heart veteran Max Rose is leading a crowded field. He has more cash on hand than any candidate vying for New York’s 11th District, raising three times as much money as Donovan this year. (Full disclosure: I knocked on doors to get signatures to put Rose on the Working Families Party ballot line. I found a lot more enthusiasm for him than my Republican neighbors demonstrate for Donovan.)

In recent weeks, Donovan has been scurrying to the right. His latest “Hail Mary pass” was to introduce a bill in Congress banning so-called “Sanctuary Cities” from receiving federal funding, despite having voted against a similar bill last June.

Indeed, until recently Donovan had been doing all of the things a moderate Republican would traditionally do to win re-election in a swing district in a blue state. This time last year, he was co-authoring an op-ed in The Washington Post with a Dreamer, grasping for “common ground” with the most sympathetic of group of undocumented immigrants. He’d even won the backing of the state AFL-CIO.

That was before Grimm began taunting him in the Staten Island Advance as “Desperate Dan” and initiated a juvenile slap war in which each besmirched his rival as a “liberal.” In far-right Bizarro World, each had committed the unforgiveable sin of not always voting in lock-step with John Boehner and Paul Ryan to keep health insurance as expensive as possible for working people.

These attacks seem to have made Grimm the favorite of the party’s shrinking base. A recent poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed Donovan trailing Grimm by ten percentage points in the upcoming primary. Donovan’s camp has dismissed the polling as so much fake news, but his complete about-face on immigration issues suggests the poll is a lot closer to the truth than they’re willing to admit publicly.

Hence his complete reversal on immigrants and sanctuary cities. And a costly reversal it is: His attempt to save himself in the primary will make it exquisitely difficult for him to win in November—should he even make it that far.

I realize that Staten Island has a national reputation as a conservative enclave in perpetual rebellion against the rest of “liberal” New York City—but the reality is a lot more complicated. There are more than twice as many registered Democrats and independents (even a sprinkling of socialists) on Staten Island than there are Republicans. One in five residents were born in another country, and anti-immigrant rhetoric still sounds anti-immigrant to the documented and undocumented alike.

The ongoing demographic “big sort”—where people choose to live in communities where their neighbors are more likely to share their values—encourages the political parties to campaign to their base and focus on turnout. That probably means that the Democrats’ best hopes for retaking the House lie in California, New Jersey, and—yes—Staten Island, NYC.

As the GOP’s rural voters increasingly embrace an extremist and reactionary agenda, the party becomes more of a fringe movement in diverse working-class communities like Staten Island’s north shore and the Brooklyn neighborhoods that have been saddled with us in NY 11. Winning the majority of a Republican minority is not going to be enough to win elections in a district like ours.

Whatever your opinion on Sanctuary Cities policies—which commit local law enforcement to do the barest minimum of cooperation with federal immigration authorities seeking to deport law-abiding undocumented residents—the fact is that it is currently settled law in New York City, and that is not an issue that is on the ballot in November. Yet Donovan’s bill proposes to deprive his constituents of a lot of our federal tax dollars. How do you stand before the voters in a general election on that kind of track record?

Grimm—the apparent GOP primary frontrunner—has long been a national embarrassment for Republicans. You might remember him from the time he threatened to “break” a reporter “like a boy” on live camera. He was under a cloud immediately after he won his first election when suspicious cash bundles raised by a foreign national quickly sparked a federal investigation.

Grimm’s former girlfriend got a slap on the wrist conviction for the clumsy violation of campaign-finance law. She didn’t roll on her former paramour, however, so he didn’t get convicted for that particular crime.

But the FBI investigation revealed a sordid history of tip-stealing at his Upper East Side health-food store. He was indicted on 20 counts ranging from tax evasion, lying under oath, and hiring undocumented workers. He eventually pled guilty to one count of tax evasion and served eight months in prison (but not before he won re-election in a 2014 race that the national Democrats also had high hopes for).

Would Grimm’s ignominious presence as the once-again standard-bearer for the GOP cause the establishment to beg Donovan to stay in the November race as a kind of “Never (Again) Trump?” Unless he withdraws, Donovan’s name will be on the ballot in the general election no matter what. Thanks to New York’s fusion voting laws—which allow third parties to co-endorse candidates as a kind of ideological “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval—his name will appear on the third- and sixth-place lines—the Conservative and Independence parties—on the November ballot. The choice for the Republican establishment may well come down to their deciding to split the vote of their diminished legions or let ex-con Grimm carry their banner in an ugly—and presumably embarrassing—defeat in November. There are not a lot of scenarios here that look good for the GOP retaining a toehold in NYC.

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