It was allegedly former House Speaker Tip O’Neill who coined the phrase “All politics is local.” Former congressman Michael Grimm is counting on this aphorism in his attempt to get his old seat back in New York’s Eleventh Congressional District. Grimm’s opponent, incumbent Dan Donovan, has the backing of almost the entire national Republican Party, including a few coveted tweets from the president. Yet tomorrow’s primary could well be a nail-biter and some observers believe Grimm, fresh out of federal prison, can pull off the upset.
Although a recent poll showed Donovan with a 7-point lead, that survey was conducted by a group that does consulting work for Donovan. It’s also at odds with other recent polls showing Grimm up by double digits. The nomination seems to be up for grabs. It is a race with national implications, too. Many Democrats are convinced a Grimm win could move the only Republican congressional seat in New York City into the blue column.
The primary has been contentious, at times bitter, and always entertaining. The district, which covers Staten Island and a slice of South Brooklyn, is an anomaly in an otherwise bright-blue city. It has an old-school, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, thick New York accents, and an active Republican voting base. In two debates, former district attorney Donovan and Grimm, who pled guilty to tax fraud in 2013, have bloodied each other, but there have been no knockouts.
What About a Pardon?
One moment in the first debate stood out not only for what it said about the race, but what it said about the figure looming over it, President Trump. On Air Force One in 2017, Donovan says he talked to the president about a pardon for Grimm. According to Donovan, he was approached by long-time Staten Island politician Guy Molinari about asking Trump for the pardon. Donovan said it was a favor for a man who had been his friend, before he “betrayed him” by backing Grimm.
Interestingly, when Donovan mentioned the pardon was for an ex-Marine (Grimm), the president asked if Molinari had supported him. Donovan told him no, he was a Never Trumper, and Trump lost interest at that point, directing Donovan to his staff for information about the pardon office.
Grimm recalls being invited to Donovan’s house, and says Donovan hugged and kissed him, and gave him a piece of paper from the pardon office with a number to call. Grimm believes the pardon effort was an attempt to keep him out of the race. But that night he told Donovan that he would run against him and that Donovan should run for a judgeship, because “you can’t beat me.” From that point on, Grimm donned his MAGA hat and prepared for battle.
A Nasty Fight
When Grimm announced he would run as a Steve Bannon pro-Trump insurgent candidate, few took the challenge seriously. When Bannon left the Trump orbit, Grimm’s candidacy seemed on even thinner ice. In retrospect, it may prove that Donovan did not take the threat seriously enough, fast enough. By early May of this year, aggressive and expensive pro-Grimm mailers began appearing in mailboxes.
They painted Donovan as a Trump doubter who often voted against the president. In some cases, notably the tax bill, that is true. They featured him alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. One warned that Donovan would let illegal immigrants pour through the border. Donovan was slow to react, perhaps not wanting to give Grimm attention. But by the time polls started showing a big Grimm lead, it was obviously time for Donovan to wake up.
Starting in June, Donovan became more aggressive, consistently calling out his opponent’s criminal history, alleging he used his victory in the 2013 race, while under indictment, as a bargaining chip for a plea deal, and securing the Trump endorsement. But will it prove to be too little, too late?
The Keys to the House
Democrats are bullish on the prospect of defeating Grimm should he win, although it’s not entirely clear why. Grimm’s challenge has forced Donovan to parrot the president on almost every issue, so he won’t emerge as particularly moderate. But then again, the district is very pro-Trump.
Grimm’s criminal record is a liability, of course, but he also won a huge victory in the 2013 general election while under a 20-count federal indictment, one of which he eventually pled guilty to. He is also famous for having threatened to throw a reporter off the Capitol balcony, but that never really seemed to bother people in Staten Island.
Grimm argues he was selectively prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department, a claim some voters see as plausible given its targeting of Trump. Moreover, he says his actual crime — hiring illegal immigrant delivery boys — is just the cost of doing business under our broken immigration system. He hopes that Staten Island voters will understand why he did it and maybe even sympathize.
Donovan is running as the clean-as-a-whistle former DA who can get the win in November. One of Trump’s endorsement tweets ominously referenced Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama as a reason not to take a chance on Grimm. By tomorrow night, we should know if his campaign — which can basically be summed up as, “Trump likes me and I didn’t go to prison” — will be moving to the general or watching from the sidelines.
Can Michael Grimm pull off one of the greatest political comebacks in recent memory? Or will Dan Donovan give national establishment Republicans a much-needed win? It’s Staten Island, so anything can happen. A Donovan win might protect the seat; a Grimm win might excite his base, leading him to victory in November. But for now, all nervous Republicans in the House can do is watch and wonder.