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A Dilemma for Democrats in New York’s 11th District

Democrats 11th District Dilemma
Grimm resigned from Congress earlier this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call).

Updated 4:23 p.m.| Democrats have a tough decision to make on Staten Island: How much of a play do they make in the special election for a seat they are likely to lose?

“I’ve always believed that that is a very tricky district,” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told CQ Roll Call recently outside the House chamber. “In a presidential year, it is competitive. In a midterm, not so competitive. In a special election, it could be exceedingly difficult.”

“I don’t envy the decision that the DCCC has to make on this one,” Israel added.

The seat is open because former Rep. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion last month. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not yet called a date for a special election — though some Democrats say it could be as early as March but the candidate jostling has begun.

This weekend, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan secured support from the Staten Island GOP, which has a key role in choosing a special election nominee in lieu of a primary. Donovan handled the Eric Garner case, attracting national attention after a grand jury ruled not to indict a policeman in his death.

Republicans on Capitol Hill view Donovan as a top candidate who is well known in the district, making the DCCC’s decision to invest in the special election even more difficult.

“We’re monitoring the opening and will make strategic assessments once the election date has been set and candidates have been nominated,” said DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin.

Special elections present a dilemma for the national parties. Victory could mean a momentum-shifting boost in the winning party’s favor, but the committee also risks wasting millions on one House seat if they lose.

This special election in New York’s 11th District marks the Empire State’s sixth in as many years. The committee expended resources in four of the five preceding New York special elections (the exception is a contest that coincided with Election Day 2010), but the DCCC has sat out recent special elections in other states.

But there’s an argument for the DCCC to sit out this special, even if the district is competitive on paper.

President Barack Obama lost the 11th District by a couple points in 2008, but won it in 2012. Democrats targeted the seat in 2014, after Grimm was brought up on a 20-count indictment. But in a banner year for Republicans, Democrats picked a weak nominee, and Grimm routed him by double digits.

Since then, the district has looks less palatable to Democrats, who know they will most likely not run against a Republican facing criminal charges.

What’s more, special election turnout is usually low, and Democrats are coming off a Republican wave that may have not crested. Plus, the unpopularity of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio is hurting the Democratic brand in the state, and his public rift with the New York Police Department will not do a Democrat any favors on Staten Island.

Despite this, some Democrats remain optimistic about their chances in a special election.

“I wouldn’t write off our ability to win this seat outright,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., when asked about it on Jan. 7 in a basement hallway of the Capitol. “I think there’s a great deal of interest in this particular seat given that it was Mr. Grimm that held the seat and the circumstances of his resignation still resonate within the broader community, and I just think you may end up seeing a much higher turnout in this special election than you’ve seen in others.”

Crowley, Israel and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney said they would be actively involved in the Democrat’s campaign. Staten Island Democratic Party Chairman John Gulino said the nominee would benefit from a ground game and human capital mobilized for the 2014 campaign.

“I think we have an excellent chance to take back the seat,” Gulino told CQ Roll Call in a Jan. 9 phone call.

The two potential Democratic candidates are former Rep. Michael E. McMahon, who won the seat in 2008 but lost to Grimm in 2010, and Assemblyman Michael Cusick. Both have said they are considering a bid.

On the Republican side, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis had expressed interest in running, but ended her exploratory bid Monday in deference to Donovan.

“I believe it is important that we unite behind Dan Donovan’s candidacy to ensure we maintain New York City’s only Republican seat,” she said in a statement.

“It’s a Reagan Democrat seat, which votes Republican,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., speaking outside the House chamber on Jan. 9. King said he felt Donovan would be the stronger candidate, but emphasized that he would not get involved in the nominating contest.

Democrats note a special election could give a candidate an opportunity to increase name recognition and build a campaign operation. Even if the candidate loses, the Democrat would have a head start on a 2016 bid.

Israel said some of the candidates he had spoken to “are considering that,” though it’s a strategy they might find hard to swallow.

“There’s no candidate in Congress that I know of anywhere in the country who goes in to lose,” he said. “You always go in to win. And that’s the first priority.”

Emily Cahn contributed to this report.

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