Whether as an independent-minded Democrat or a Trump conservative, the first step to running a successful campaign in New York’s 11th District is to convince Staten Islanders and Brooklynites that the candidate will buck the party to fight for them. And a big worry for some Republicans ahead of Tuesday’s primary is that voters seem to be putting that trust in Michael Grimm.
A convicted felon and the district’s former congressman, Grimm led Rep. Dan Donovan by 10 points in an NY1/Siena College poll released earlier this month. Nearly every respondent said they were unlikely to change their mind before the election.
But while Grimm may be winning over primary voters, Donovan is widely seen as the better candidate for a general election in which both Democrats and non-Trump Republicans will scoff at Grimm’s claims of political persecution. Even the poll’s respondents agreed; asked who had a better chance of winning in November regardless of whom they supported in the primary, Donovan was the choice by a 46-35 percent margin.
The winner will face a fierce opponent in Max Rose, an Army veteran and the presumptive Democratic nominee. The latest Federal Election Commission filings showed Rose had more than $1 million in cash on hand as of June 6, more than Donovan and Grimm combined.
Rose has said he won’t back Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader, which fits with the profile he’s painted of himself as a “different kind of Democrat.” He’s slammed Donovan and Grimm as beholden to corporate donors and as failures on the district’s important issues, said Rose campaign manager Kevin Elkins.
Elkins said Rose’s military record resonates strongly with the large number of civil and military service members living in the district, and that it helps him show voters he understands their priorities: traffic, the economy, opioids. And in a preview of the possible general-election matchup, Elkins continued to bring up Grimm’s conviction for tax fraud and his admission to committing perjury in a lawsuit—scandals he said Rose is in a better position to indict than Donovan.
“What Max has really been talking about is the need to rebuild trust, because there’s no faith in our political leaders, especially when one admitted to perjury,” Elkins said.
Rose’s message as an independent-minded veteran echoes that of Rep. Conor Lamb, who pulled off a win earlier this year in what used to be a safe Republican seat in blue-collar southwestern Pennsylvania. Donald Trump won New York’s 11th District by 10 points in 2016.
“I think the moderate, military-guy profile works,” said Chapin Fay, senior vice president at the consulting firm Mercury. “Will it work against Dan Donovan? Doubtful. Will it work against Mike Grimm? I don’t know.”
For Republican primary voters in the “forgotten borough,” where Trump enjoys sky-high approval numbers, their trust belongs to the strongest supporter of a president who they see as on their side, according to a Republican strategist familiar with the race. Despite Trump having endorsed Donovan in a tweet as the pollster was in the field, voters appear to be buying Grimm’s message that he can best help the president.
And while Donovan has hit Grimm repeatedly over his felony record, some voters see Grimm as a victim of the same kind of politically driven persecution they see the president tweet about daily.
“What they determined is that Michael Grimm was a victim of a Nancy Pelosi-led witch hunt, and that Donovan is not as strong of a supporter of the president,” the strategist said.
Both Grimm and Donovan are well-liked in the district and voted similarly in office. But in a race some say will turn on a battle of personalities, the two campaigns are looking to earn voters’ trust in different ways.
“I think at the end of the day, that’s the contrast there. You have a guy in Donovan who’s … always been looked at as a law-and-order guy who’s extremely honest,” said Jim McLaughlin, president of the polling firm McLaughlin & Associates. “Whereas Grimm’s trying to say, ‘I’m a guy from the neighborhood; I’m just like you.’”
Donovan is benefiting from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the race with ads touting Trump’s endorsement and the local party’s powerful turnout machine. But with both candidates running for the Conservative Party line—Donovan is the endorsed candidate and Grimm is seeking it as a write-in—it’s possible the general election could feature all three candidates. That’s a prospect that delights national Democratic strategists.
But sources said such a scenario is not very likely. Fay said Donovan would likely bow out in that case if he thought it was what was best for his constituents, but he was less sure about Grimm.
“I don’t think he would drop out,” Fay said of the former congressman. “He may not campaign as hard … but he seems to be an interesting character who might just do it out of spite.”
With Donovan as the party’s standard-bearer, Republicans are confident they can keep the seat despite the Democrat’s war chest. But Rose’s camp sees a path to victory through the tactic that many say Grimm has used successfully.
“We’re going to win this the old-fashioned way—shaking hands and kissing babies,” Elkins said. “[Max is] a force of nature, and whether it’s Michael Grimm or Dan Donovan, they’re gonna get rocked across their jaws pretty heavily.”