Not so grim for Grimm after all

Not so grim for Grimm after all
© Greg Nash

Things may not be so grim for Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) after all.

Despite being indicted earlier this year on federal tax fraud and obstruction of justice charges related to his ownership of a restaurant, public and private polls show Grimm with a narrow lead fewer than 50 days before Election Day.

The deck is stacked against him, but it looks like it’s possible Grimm could pull off a surprise victory — thanks in part to Democrats recruiting a candidate who lives in the wrong place.

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On paper, former New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia should be crushing the embattled Grimm, who has been charged with paying employees of his health food restaurant under the table to avoid higher taxes.

Recchia has a strong resume, good fundraising chops and the enthusiastic backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), led by neighboring Long Island Rep. Steve Israel (D).

His problem is that he comes from Brooklyn, which makes up just over a quarter of a district dominated by Staten Island, a borough with a distinctly different self image than the hipster mecca.

“Staten Islanders believe that anyone that doesn’t live there can’t understand their problems,” New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me of the area often referred to as the “forgotten borough.”

“If [Recchia] could overcome the Staten Island xenophobia, he wins,” Sheinkopf added.

Staten Island isn’t the dyed-in-the-wool blue of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, either. The district went for President Obama in the 2012 presidential race but for Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in 2008. In last year’s mayoral race it backed Republican Joe Lhota over Democrat Bill de Blasio, who lived in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and is close with Recchia.

All the makings are there for Democrats to topple Grimm.

After his April indictment, his party abandoned him in droves. The National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t spent on Grimm’s behalf or even mentioned him in a press release or story since his indictment, and haven’t indicated they plan to. The two-term incumbent’s fundraising plummeted to a paltry $68,000 in the second quarter.

Early conventional wisdom inside the Beltway was that Grimm was a goner. The Washington Post has named him the most vulnerable incumbent of 2014.

Yet a NY 1 News/Capital New York/Siena College poll released late Tuesday found Grimm with an edge of  4 percentage points over Recchia, 44 to 40 percent.

Though the low 40s is never where an incumbent wants to be, the poll suggests Recchia has had trouble catching on, unsurprisingly, in the Staten Island part of the district. He trails Grimm there by 9 points, though he leads in Brooklyn by 7 points.

Half of all voters say Grimm’s indictment makes them less likely to support him, and his favorability has plummeted since 2012. But one-quarter of Staten Island voters also said that where Recchia lives makes them less likely to support him.

Democrats saw the writing on the wall early about Recchia’s vulnerabilities, and realize they can’t take a victory over Grimm for granted.

To win, they believed they needed to cut into the former FBI agent’s “tough guy” persona that appeals to Staten Island voters, and remind people of his indictments and brusque approach, such as when he threatened to throw a reporter off the rotunda balcony during an interview after this year’s State of the Union address.

The DCCC’s independent expenditure ads — up already for six weeks on cable —show news coverage of the incidents in a loop while repeating “Liar. Fraud. Cheat.” and asking “Can you believe this guy?”

Israel himself has tried to push back on the idea that a Recchica victory is inevitable, telling reporters in July that, though “the conventional wisdom is that that race is now a lean D, but I don’t see it as a lean D. I see it as a true toss-up.”

Recchia’s ads have emphasized his Staten Island ties, showing him driving back and forth between the two boroughs for family events and to pick up his mom, who lives on the island. He shuffles back and forth, frustrated over tolls on the Verrazano Bridge. 

Grimm was able to scrape together enough to launch his first ad this week hitting Recchia where he’s most vulnerable, saying he voted for raising property taxes and tolls during the “Brooklyn councilman’s” tenure.

Republicans probably wouldn’t be that sad to see themselves rid of Grimm and his problems, especially with his pending December trial. They can’t risk lifting a finger for him, or it could bleed over to their other congressional candidates.

But for Democrats, it’s a near must-win. If they want to cut into the GOP’s majority at all or hope for any gains on election night, knocking off a scandal-plagued incumbent in their chairman’s backyard is imperative. Recchia was touted as an early recruitment win by the DCCC and he and Israel are close — the chairman has hosted fundraisers and attended events with him.

Grimm has made clear he won’t go down without a fight, however, and the “local boy who made good,” as Sheinkopf put it, won’t be easy to defeat.

National Journal’s Alex Roarty captured the mood well when he visited the district and asked voters about their opinion of the scandal and indictment. 

“You know what I say? ‘That’s my boy Grimm.’ Nobody is perfect,” a voter said to him. “He didn’t murder anyone.”