By Embracing Trump in Primary, Did Congressman Seal His Fate in November?
Posted September 27, 2018 3:20 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Three days before a bitterly contested congressional primary, Rep. Dan Donovan, the Republican incumbent, wanted to leave no doubt with voters at an anti-tax rally that he was the candidate preferred by President Donald Trump.
Lawn signs and placards would not be enough: His campaign unveiled a mobile two-story-tall billboard that blared Trump’s endorsement.
But after Donovan defeated his rival, Michael Grimm, the former congressman and federal tax felon, in June, Donovan’s embrace of Trump is something less than full-throated.
Gone are the lawn signs that paired Donovan’s name with the Trump logo; in their place are signs that proclaim “Solutions, Results.”
As Donovan, the former Staten Island district attorney, faces a feisty challenge in the general election from the Democratic candidate, Max Rose, Donovan seems to be moving toward the center. In a district that has more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet skews heavily conservative, the question now is whether Trump’s support may hurt more than it helps in November.
The issue is one that is playing out across the country, but is particularly germane in New York City, where Trump is deeply unpopular.
“I don’t think he’ll be talking about that bill to put Trump’s mug in every post office in America,” said Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island. He was referring to legislation that Donovan had sponsored to ensure that every post office displayed a photograph of the president.
“It’s a scramble to the middle; it really is,” he said.
Similarly, Rose, a 31-year-old former Army veteran and health care executive, is trying his best to court the center by winning over unaffiliated voters, as well as Republicans disenchanted with Trump. In one of two recent television ads, he even goes after a stalwart of his own party, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Look,” he says into the camera from a sidewalk in the district. “I’m running against Dan Donovan. But the truth is, he’s not the only one doing a lousy job. Mayor de Blasio acts like Staten Island doesn’t even exist. And we need to get rid of all the leadership in D.C. — Republican and Democrat.”
Rose is by no means a far-left liberal — for example, he does not espouse abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement — but Republican leaders on Staten Island chuckled at the notion that he was an anti-establishment candidate.
They point out that he was one of the first congressional challengers named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “red to blue” program, which supports candidates it believes can help flip Congress in November. Rose has also received endorsements from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The imprimatur from the committee no doubt gave Rose a financial boost. His campaign recorded $1.9 million in donations through the end of June, compared with Donovan’s $1.8 million.
“Max Rose is pretending that he is not a progressive liberal, while at the same time accepting the endorsement of Andrew Cuomo,” said Brendan Lantry, chairman of the Staten Island Republican Party. “Staten Islanders won’t be fooled.”
For Rose, however, distancing himself from de Blasio makes perfect political sense, even though he insisted in an interview that it had “nothing to do with political strategy.” Polls have consistently shown that de Blasio’s popularity has lagged in Staten Island, a borough that tried to secede from New York City in the 1990s.
Rather than fixating on broad progressive themes, the Rose campaign has drilled down to issues affecting the 11th Congressional District, which includes all of Staten Island and a slice of South Brooklyn. Republicans and Democrats alike worry about traffic congestion, worsening subway service and the toll of opioid addiction, issues that Rose said he would take on more aggressively than Donovan.
“The mythical Reagan Democrat still exists on Staten Island,” Flanagan noted. “The anti-de Blasio commercials are aimed at them. De Blasio is just an unpopular figure. There is an antipathy toward urban liberals in general.”
Determined to avoid making the general election a referendum on Trump, Donovan has focused on Staten Island’s proud local identity and thorny problems.
Donovan highlights his deep roots in the district: he is a native of the borough and has spent nearly a quarter century in public service, first as deputy borough president, then as a three-term district attorney and, now, a congressman.
Donovan described Rose as “a blank slate.” “He’s only lived in Staten Island for a very short period of time.”
And as Election Day approaches, Donovan is showcasing the times that he parted company with the White House, most notably with his votes against replacing the Affordable Care Act and against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Both were pieces of legislation, which Trump championed, that Donovan said would have hurt his constituents.
“I may not have voted with the president every time,” he said in a phone interview, “but I voted 100 percent of the time with my community.” He said his most proud legislative moment came immediately after he was sworn in by John Boehner, who was the House speaker when Donovan took office in 2015. The issue was whether to extend critical parts of the Zadroga bill, which provided health care for emergency workers who risked their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, or in the recovery and cleanup efforts.
“That was the very first thing I did in Congress,” he said. “At 6:45 on a Tuesday evening, Speaker Boehner swore me in and at 6:50 I signed onto the Zadroga bill and advocated for the passage of that. There were many people, most of them on my side of the aisle, who didn’t want to give permanent health care to those brave women and men.”
It is unclear whether voters will view the general election as a referendum on the Trump presidency or a local contest about local issues. But political observers say that Donovan is benefiting from his status as an incumbent (with all the name recognition it affords) and his push-pull relationship with Trump.
“Donovan is in a sweet spot right now,” Flanagan said. “He has the Trump endorsement, but he has also bucked the president on two big bills. Max Rose has his work cut out for him because he can’t simply say, ‘Trump is horrible; I’m going to run against Trump.’ That probably doesn’t get him enough votes.”