Very Early Handicapping on Special Election in New York’s 11th District

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 2, 2015 · 3:08 PM EST

For political operatives, reporters and junkies there isn’t a more appropriate way to kick off a new year and new election cycle than a special election in New York.

Special elections in the Empire State have became a nearly-annual affair. And thanks to GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm’s resignation, New York will host a sixth special election in as many years.

Even though the race is just starting to taking shape, the lean of the district and local political environment gives Republicans an initial edge. But four out of the last five special elections in New York have resulted in a party takeover, an election date has not been set and the parties have yet to pick their nominees.

Grimm was first elected in 2010 and re-elected two years later to the 11th District, which includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn. But in April 2014, the Marine veteran and former FBI agent faced a 20-count indictment on tax evasion charges related to “Healthalicious,” a Manhattan-based health food store he owned prior to his election to Congress.

In the face of millions of dollars in Democratic attack ads and without the financial help of Republican allies who opted to keep their distance, Grimm won re-election in 2014 over Democrat Domenic M. Recchia Jr. by more than a dozen points.

But on Dec. 23, the congressman pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion. Grimm initially said he would not resign, but apparently changed his mind not long after a meeting with Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

According to state law, a special election must be held between 70 and 80 days of a vacancy. But even though Grimm announced his resignation effective Jan. 5, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is given wide discretion as to when to declare the seat officially vacant.

  • For example, in 2011, Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned his seat on June 21, but the special election didn’t take place until Sept. 13, 84 days later.
  • Earlier that year, the race to replace GOP Rep. Christopher Lee didn’t take place until 101 days after his resignation.
  • In 2010, Democratic Gov. David Paterson used the loophole to push off the special election to replace Democratic Rep. Eric Massa to the next regular election — 239 days after the congressman resigned.
  • In 2009, two special elections were held 43 and 64 days from resignations, when the law prescribed the race to take place between 30 and 45 days from a vacancy.

But even though the date has not been set in this race, the field of potential candidates is starting to narrow. According to state law, local party leaders will select the nominees.

The highest profile potential candidate on the Republican side is Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan. He’s a popular local officeholder who faced criticism when a grand jury failed to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, in an incident that gained national attention.

State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis may also run. The 34 year-old legislator was first elected to her Staten Island/Brooklyn district in 2010 and has been mentioned as a potential candidate since Grimm’s initial indictment. Malliotakis might be a win-win for the GOP caucus, which would subtract a convicted felon and add a young, female voice.

One GOP source mentioned State Sen. Andrew Lanza, but the former New York City councilman has not shown particular interest in running for Congress. Republicans also hold a narrow majority in the New York Senate and may not want to risk losing a legislative seat by sending Lanza to Washington, D.C.

Former Rep. Vito Fossella was also a potential candidate. He held the seat until 2008 when a drunk driving incident revealed that he fathered a child with a woman who was not his wife, retired, and Republicans lost his seat to Democrat Michael E. McMahon. But Fossella told the local media recently he was not interested in returning to Washington at this time.

The field of potential Democrats is essentially down to two candidates: McMahon and state Assemblyman Michael Cusick.

McMahon served one term in Congress after winning in 2008 and then losing to Grimm in 2010, 49 percent to 46 percent. McMahon previously represented Mid and North Shore Staten Island on the city council. Cusick, a Staten Island native and former aide to Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, was elected to the state Legislature in 2002.

Democratic strategists believe there is a path to victory for either man. But if Recchia, a Brooklyn politician, happens to be chosen again, it is very unlikely national Democrats would invest in the special election. Besides the significant geographical disadvantage, Recchia was not an agile candidate on the stump, as summarized by a Daily Show segment.

Overall, Democrats are not particularly optimistic about their chances in the special election but believe it could be a building block for a competitive race in 2016, when coupled with the presidential contest. Even though President Barack Obama won the district with 52 percent in 2012, Republicans do very well in other races down the ballot.

The race could become a proxy war for the Garner case, particularly if Donovan is the GOP nominee. But the black population of the 11th District is just eight percent, according to CQ Roll Call’s Politics in America, and Staten Island is home to a considerable population of current and retired New York City police officers.

It’s not clear how a battle over the Garner case would benefit Democrats. Republicans will likely try to make the race a referendum on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been consistently criticized by local law enforcement and is not popular on Staten Island.

Democrats would likely push to focus the race on Grimm, particularly if Malliotakis is the GOP nominee. Considering Grimm’s legal troubles weren’t enough to bring down Grimm, it’s not clear why voters would hold Malliotakis responsible.

Democrats can usually hold out hope Republican infighting will drop a seat into their hands. But Conservative Party of New York Chairman Michael Long told The Hill and confirmed to CQ Roll Call that both Donovan and Malliotakis would be acceptable. So it’s unlikely that a third-party candidate will divide the GOP vote.

Without candidates or an election date, it’s difficult to handicap this race beyond the fundamentals. And the fundamentals give the GOP a very early — and obviously tentative — advantage in the 11th District special election.

Correction Jan. 5, 2:20pm: The original version of this article misstated the year Malliotakis was elected to the Legislature and McMahon's city council district.