Michael Grimm said in his resignation announcement from the House nearly three years ago that it was time to start a new chapter of his life. After serving time in federal prison for tax fraud, he appears to be turning back to an old one.
Grimm is weighing a bid for his former seat, New York’s 11th District, where Republican Rep. Dan Donovan won in a 2015 special election and was reelected easily the following year.
The former congressman has already tried to differentiate himself from Donovan ideologically, blasting his potential opponent for straying from President Trump’s agenda and calling him a “liberal Democrat”—a label that will be tough to make stick. But Grimm has more work to do to make inroads against his successor.
“There has to be some impetus for Republicans to want to throw out another Republican,” a state party official with ties to Donovan said. “It’s hard to see where the path is for [Grimm]. I think he’s going to have a lot of trouble raising money. … The party apparatus is totally behind [Donovan] and I think that’s tough to overcome.”
A joint release last month from the chairs of the state, Staten Island, and Brooklyn chapters of the Republican Party affirmed support for the incumbent, with state party Chair Ed Cox saying “we are behind him 100 percent.” Though the rest of the party is backing Donovan, Grimm boasts a close relationship with Guy Molinari, once considered a Republican patriarch (and, at one time, a mentor to Donovan).
Besides the felony conviction, Grimm’s tenure in Congress was marked by his flair for the dramatic—like a threat to throw a reporter over a Capitol Hill balcony—which didn’t seem to bother constituents. He won his last election handily in this Staten Island-based district, even while under indictment for the charges to which he would eventually plead guilty, and as the Republican Party distanced itself from him.
Staten Island, which has the highest percentage of residents of Italian ancestry in the country, and which voted for secession from the far more liberal New York City over income taxes in 1993, is known for its bombastic personalities. The portion of the district that includes southwest Brooklyn has similar demographics.
Meanwhile, personal scandals don’t always plague politicians in the area. Former Republican Rep. Vito Fossella opted not to seek reelection in 2008 after he was arrested for a DWI and revealed having a child out of wedlock. That led to Democratic Rep. Michael McMahon’s victory in 2008, before Grimm unseated him in 2010. Yet Fossella stayed popular among constituents and within the state party, and was even approached about running again in 2014 as the investigation into Grimm heated up.
One group that would welcome Grimm’s run: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is targeting the district this cycle. At least six candidates have filed to run in the Democratic primary, and Grimm’s entry could make the district more competitive.
A primary run “would definitely split their base,” said Bobby Digi, president of the Staten Island Democratic Association. “We may able to trap some voters that would be looking to deal a blow to the establishment, which has been happening a lot locally.”
Roy Moskowitz, a local Democratic strategist who ran last year’s campaign against Donovan, said Grimm’s potential to wound Donovan ahead of the general election could provide an opening for a Democrat. Moskowitz also speculated that Grimm could opt to seek the Conservative Party line, which “would certainly draw votes away from Donovan.”
But the platform and quality of whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will matter in a district with many blue-collar voters who would likely be averse to a progressive agenda. And, though the district went for President Obama in 2012 by 5 points, President Trump carried it by 9 points last year.
“I think Donovan is vulnerable without Grimm,” Moskowitz said, noting Staten Island’s equivalent of a Mason-Dixon line. “North Shore is fairly Democratic, and South Shore is like Alabama. And therefore, it’s a conservative district, but Mike McMahon won it pretty handily in 2008, Obama won it in 2012. So it’s certainly winnable for a Democrat.”
On the other hand, the state GOP official with ties to Donovan said, “If they couldn’t even mount a credible challenge in a presidential year with Hillary [Clinton] at the top of the ticket, it’s hard to see” how a Democrat could beat Donovan this time around.
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