Democrats Look Past Tuesday’s New York Special Election

Grimm's fundraising has slowed since his indictment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Grimm's fundraising has slowed since his indictment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 5, 2015 at 5:00am

Republican Daniel Donovan is expected to cruise to victory Tuesday in the special election to replace disgraced former Rep. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y.  

Despite the apparent opportunity for Democrats stemming from Grimm’s resignation in January , after the three-term Republican pleaded guilty to tax fraud, national Democrats did not see a path to victory and spent almost nothing to aid their party’s candidate, New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile. Democrats argue that despite the expected loss to the Staten Island district attorney, the 11th District — with a northeastern boundary just blocks from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in Brooklyn — is within reach in November 2016, with presidential-level turnout and further distance from a dismal midterm cycle.  

“Democrats have won it [at the presidential level], so there’s no question it’s a winnable seat,” said Jef Pollock, a New York-based Democratic pollster. “With the right candidate in the right year, it’s definitely a winnable seat.”  

While Republicans quickly rallied around Donovan, Gentile was selected as the party’s nominee after other top-tier Democrats — including former Rep. Michael E. McMahon and state Assemblyman Michael Cusick — passed on the race .  

Democratic operatives said the top recruits opted out with the understanding that the unpopularity of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio in Staten Island and the challenges of turning out the Democratic base in an odd-timed election made winning the special a more formidable task than running next year.  

Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he didn’t understand Democrats’ strategy of spending big against Grimm last year, then sitting out the special in favor of making another serious bid for the seat in 2016. He compared Grimm’s margin of victory in 2014 to a fellow New Yorker, Steve Israel, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  

“If they want to spend money there, they certainly are welcome to,” Walden told CQ Roll Call last month. “They spent $5 million against Michael Grimm and he got a bigger percentage of the vote than Steve Israel did, and we didn’t spend any money.”  

In 2012, Grimm outperformed President Barack Obama to defeat Democrat Mark S. Murphy, the son of a former member, who struggled to raise money. Two years later, despite facing a 20-count federal indictment, Grimm defeated a weak Democratic opponent by a 13-point spread.  

Without a strong effort from national Democrats this year, the race flew under the radar. Gentile struggled to raise funds , bringing in just $196,000. But Democrats say they will quickly pivot to 2016 and promise to recruit a strong candidate.  

“This is an Obama district — turnout will be significantly higher with Clinton on the ticket, so I think that you’ll see some quality recruits come along,” said one national Democratic operative, who declined to give names.  

New York Democratic operatives said McMahon, Cusick or state Sen. Diane J. Savino could run. All three are from Staten Island, which makes up the vast majority of this district. The party’s last two recruits came from the Brooklyn sliver of the 11th, which likely hurt those candidates among the Staten Island electorate.  

A top recruit will be key to ousting Donovan, a well-known Republican in Staten Island with a national profile following the Eric Garner case, in which a grand jury declined to indict a police officer whose choke-hold resulted in Garner’s death.  

“It’s dangerous to read too far into a special election where one party really wasn’t playing and think that will mean anything for the general election,” said another national Democratic operative.  

Presuming he wins Tuesday in the sixth special congressional election in the state in as many years, Donovan will have history on his side in the next race. In the 101 House special elections over the past 25 years, the party that won also came out victorious in the subsequent regular election 94 percent of the time, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis .  

The November 2016 race is currently rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.