Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) is hoping President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s endorsement in his tight reelection contest against former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) will put him over the top in the June 26 Republican primary.
Grimm has sought to paint himself as the real foot soldier of the Trump movement, noting Donovan’s votes against the GOP tax-cut bill, legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare and a bill that would strip federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities.
But the GOP establishment is solidly behind Donovan in the Staten Island district that extends into southern Brooklyn, seeing Grimm as a weak general election candidate given his eight-month prison sentence for tax fraud.
Grimm is well known in his old district, however, and a poll last week from NY1-Siena found him with a 10-point lead. That poll was conducted mostly before Trump’s endorsement of Donovan, which the incumbent played up at the first debate on Monday, reminding GOP voters they don’t want to have another Alabama situation where the GOP hands over a winnable race to Democrats.
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The primary has become one of the most heated races in the country, with Trump as the centerpiece of both campaigns. The attacks escalated at Monday’s debate, where Grimm and Donovan sparred over who’s the real Trump loyalist and lobbed accusations at one another.
“I don’t think people see [Donovan] as a ‘Never Trumper,’ but they see Grimm in his belligerent style as more representative of the Trump political lifestyle and I think that resonates with voters,” said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island.
Donovan, a former district attorney in Staten Island, has sought to capitalize on Trump’s endorsement as a way to neutralize Grimm’s incessant attacks that he’s an enemy of the administration because he voted against signature legislation backed by the White House.
Donovan has defended his votes, arguing that they’d have a uniquely negative impact on New York City. He voted against the tax plan because the bill scaled back the state and local tax deduction, which hurt high-tax states. He voted against the sanctuary city bill that would cut federal aid for the police department, instead proposing his own that wouldn’t cut that funding.
“[Trump] has looked at both of our records. He said I’m the one that’s good on border security and crime,” Donovan said at Monday’s debate on WABC radio. “He compared my opponent to [Alabama Republican] Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreSessions goes after Tuberville’s coaching record in challenging him to debate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Sessions fires back at Trump over recusal: ‘I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did” MORE. He didn’t just say vote for me. He said don’t vote for him.”
Donovan hinted that Trump “isn’t finished campaigning for me,” though Trump has yet to publicly indicate if he’ll come to Staten Island in the upcoming weeks. Some political observers believe an in-person visit from Trump would give Donovan the momentum he needs to neutralize Grimm’s attacks.
“I think if Trump shows up between now and primary day to do a campaign stop, that’s probably a game-changer. I think the tweet definitely registered, but I don’t think it’s a game-changer in pushing the election,” Flanagan said. “I still think Donovan is going to pull it out, but I think if Trump shows up, that’s big insurance policy.”
Grimm, a former FBI agent who has a more brash, pugnacious style, brushed aside Trump’s endorsement of Donovan, saying it “didn’t bother me at all.”
“Anyone who thinks the stronger candidate is the one that’s not going to win this primary, it’s antithetical to common sense,” Grimm said. “The stronger candidate will emerge, the stronger candidate will be the one who resonates with the voters of Staten Island and Brooklyn.”
One of the biggest clashes at the debate was over whether Donovan suggested to Trump that he consider pardoning Grimm. Donovan insisted that he himself did not make the suggestion, but rather that he relayed a message to Trump from a third party, a different former New York congressman, who wanted a pardon for Grimm.
“You were offering pardons because you didn’t want me to run against you,” Grimm said at Monday’s debate. Donovan fired back that he only gave Grimm the phone number for the pardon office.
Grimm later accused Donovan of asking the ex-congressman to hold off on a primary challenge, suggesting that Grimm give him two more years because “my daughter is getting older and I’m going to retire.” Donovan denied ever saying that.
Donovan is hoping Grimm’s criminal record can overshadow his attacks. The sitting congressman has seized on Grimm’s 2014 indictment on 20 charges related to a New York City restaurant he owned where he hired immigrants in the country illegally and paid them in cash, which lessened the tax burden on his establishment.
“Someone who didn’t pay his taxes wants a federal job from us so he can get a federal pension,” Donovan said, calling on Grimm to release his tax returns.
Grimm has acknowledged his employment of undocumented workers, arguing the “harsh reality” that Americans are less inclined to take lower-wage jobs. He said he supports a “robust” guest worker program and E-Verify.
But he’s called his conviction an “Obama Justice Department witch hunt,” something political strategists in New York believe could potentially sway GOP base voters.
“[Grimm] has maintained his ties very strongly. A lot of voters feel he was given the short end of the stick on that conviction,” said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College.
Whoever emerges from the primary will face likely Democratic nominee Max Rose, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.
National Democrats have been touting Rose’s moderate credentials, and the first-time candidate has already outraised both Republicans. But he’ll have to fend off GOP attacks that he’s a carpetbagger and that he’d be a rubber stamp for House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE’s (D-Calif.) agenda.
Republicans are still slightly favored to hold on to the district since Trump won the seat by 10 points in 2016. Nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report has the race rated as “lean Republican.”
Political observers believe Donovan would have the upper hand in a general over Grimm, especially in a year where the wind is at Democrats’ back and they’re overperforming in redder districts and states.
“I do think Grimm would face some trouble in that regard unless he’s able get really strong showing among Republicans and I don’t know if they’ll have incentive to go out [in November],” Zaino said. “So I think if there’s any year where Democrats could take this seat back, it would be this year if Grimm was nominated.”