With Michael Grimm’s resignation from Congress today, New York’s 11th congressional district is back up for grabs. The Republican-leaning district, comprising Staten Island and parts of South Brooklyn, will have a special election in the next few months. Party leaders on both sides will appoint candidates, and the front-runner for the Republicans is Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Donovan was the prosecutor who failed to secure a grand-jury indictment in the Eric Garner case.
For the following five reasons, the Staten Island, New York State, and national Republican leadership should be very wary of a Donovan candidacy.
1. Hype in this election is bad for the GOP.
This should be a sleepy special election, a low-turnout afterthought to the contentious 2014 midterms. Under those conditions, the basic math of the district should provide a comfortable Republican victory. But Donovan changes all of that. He makes this a minor national story, but far worse, he makes it a huge story in New York City. Democratic activists will be motivated to try to defeat him. The bigger this election gets, the better chance a moderate Democrat has of taking the seat. It becomes the “I can’t breathe” election.
2. Running Donovan is bad for the New York City GOP.
It’s no secret that New York City is a pretty liberal place. But notwithstanding its progressive leanings, Gotham hadn’t elected a Democrat mayor in over two decades prior to Bill de Blasio’s 2013 victory. Part of the reason de Blasio won, despite being a very flawed candidate, is that Republicans had no serious challenger. The primary between eventual winner Joe Lhota and outsider John Catsimatidis was a cringeworthy race to general-election sacrifice. The Republican brand will not be resurrected by making the prosecutor from the infamous Garner case the top GOP elected official in the city.
3. Running Donovan is bad for the national GOP.
When Grimm agreed to step down after meeting with John Boehner, it was widely viewed as a victory for the speaker, who was ridding his caucus of controversy. Well, welcome back controversy once Donovan steps through the doors of Congress. Whether reasonable or not, the narrative will be that Republicans elected the man who gave the police a pass to kill black men. It’s difficult to imagine how this will help grow the Republican tent.
4. There are legitimate questions about the Garner grand jury.
A featured talking point from conservatives during the recent unrest has been that Ferguson and Staten Island were very different cases. The Ferguson grand jury had a complicated situation to parse out, with varied testimony and evidence. The Garner grand jury, on the other hand, faced a case in which a man had died because of, to quote the coroner’s report, “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police” — and there was video to prove Garner posed no real threat to the officers. To date, Donovan has not provided a compelling explanation as to why or how the grand jury failed to indict. Until he does, many people, including some Republicans, will feel trepidation about voting for him.
5. There may be a better choice.
The only other serious Republican contender for the NY11 seat is Nicole Malliotakis, a young, popular state assemblywoman whose district, like the 11th, spans the Verrazano bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn. In 2013, Malliotakis spoke at CPAC as one of the ten rising GOP stars under 40. Unlike the polarizing Donovan, Malliotakis has the promise of appealing to potential new Republican voters in New York City. As the city’s leading Republican, she would offer a fresh vision and image of what the new Grand Old Party can and should look like.
The Republican leadership needs to tread carefully in this special election. NY11 is the only seat the national GOP holds in the nation’s largest, most important city, and putting Donovan forward as the nominee would put it at risk. If Donovan then won the general election — and there’s a good chance he would, given how strongly the district leans to the right — that would be a victory that could hurt the Republican party in New York City for years to come.
— David Marcus is a regular contributor to The Federalist.