STATEN ISLAND — “I didn’t vote for you,” Kevin Smith told Rep. Max Rose, after flagging down the freshman Democratic congressman while walking his dog. “But I gotta give you credit — you worked your ass off. You deserve it.”
Smith identified himself as a registered Democrat. He urged Rose not to get involved in impeachment. He remarked on just how far to the left some Democrats in Congress were. In 2016, he said, he’d voted for Donald Trump.
“You know Staten Island,” he said. “It’s in a different place.”
Control of the House of Representatives rests on seats like this one, where voters have long favored Republicans but where the particular nature of the district leaves an opening for the right Democrat in the right year. Trump won this New York district by 10 points in 2016. But two years later Rose bested the incumbent Republican, Dan Donovan, becoming just the second Democrat to represent the area in over 20 years. Staten Island, which makes up the bulk of this district, is Trump Country — full of blue-collar workers and union households, where the populace feels forgotten and slighted by the liberals a ferry ride away in Manhattan. It’s the kind of place some Republicans think will naturally come back to them when the president is actually on the ballot, not just looming over it, like he did last year. For Republicans to have any hope of winning the House in 2020, they have to win districts like these.
“If this is in their path to take back the House, they’re fucked,” Rose told BuzzFeed News over a steak and pasta, after an hour of knocking on constituents’ doors.
“You can put that on the record,” his district director clarified.
To hear Republicans tell it, there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this. In 2018, there was an unprecedented level of energy on the left. The left didn’t like Trump, and since they couldn’t vote against him directly in a midterm election, they took out their anger and frustration in down ballot races, helping Democrats flip 40 House seats. Trump supporters, by contrast, were pretty happy with how things were going, and since their guy wasn’t on the ballot, they didn’t feel as compelled to go to the polls. And Donovan, well, he got caught sleeping.
“I just feel that those that disliked Trump were more motivated to come out. And boom,” said Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican now running for the seat whom leaders in Washington and New York have made clear is their preferred candidate. She was a top fundraiser among Republican House candidates in the first quarter this year, and she won the district handily when she ran for mayor in 2017.
Next year, she and other Republicans said, will be different.
“I mean for the obvious things,” she told BuzzFeed News at a diner in Bay Ridge, in the Brooklyn part of the district, “I’m not Dan Donovan.”
But she might share one of his problems: a primary. Michael Grimm, who represented the seat in Congress until he resigned after pleading guilty to charges of felony tax evasion, is considering a comeback bid. It would be his second try — Donovan trounced him in a primary by 26% last year.
“I don’t think anyone’s gonna be surprised that I’ve been lining up things for a run,” Grimm said over lunch at a diner in Midtown Manhattan. He told BuzzFeed News he’s currently working as the chief operating officer of a real estate company with offices nearby, as well as running his own business consulting practice.
He senses “enthusiasm” in the district for him to run again. “I know my district,” he said. “I pretty much know — I still have my finger on the pulse.”
That enthusiasm is lacking among Republican leaders, who have a narrow path to a House majority with little margin for error. They need strong candidates who are right for the specific district they’re running in. They need those candidates to have the funds to compete with the seemingly bottomless pit of money available to Democrats in the Trump era. They do not need a primary, which would sap valuable resources and potentially push a candidate to take positions not well-suited to a November electorate in a swing district. And they do not want Grimm, whose past incarceration coupled with the drubbing he took in last year’s primary have left them skeptical of his viability as a candidate.
Grimm’s diagnosis of 2018 is similar to other Republicans’, if more forgiving in its view of his loss. Donovan, he said, was “lazy.” (“And ‘lazy’ Dan beat him by 30 points!” Donovan told BuzzFeed News via text.) Grimm attributes Donovan’s primary victory entirely to Trump’s endorsement. The primary hinged around the president, with Grimm casting himself as the true loyalist, even as Donovan was the one who got the endorsement.
“I admit it. I lost to the president of the United States, and I’m not embarrassed by that. And to some extent I’m proud because I want President Trump to do well,” Grimm said. “But it certainly wasn’t Donovan that beat me.”
After the primary, in Grimm’s telling, Donovan backed away from Trump, alienating the base. And Rose outworked him.
“We would’ve held the seat if I won, in my opinion,” he said.
It is not a widely held opinion.
“Irrelevant” is how Malliotakis described Grimm’s stated intentions of joining her in the race. “The guy lost two to one to Dan Donovan. It’s not any way something I think about.”
Last year, Grimm and Donovan’s battle centered on Trump — who he supported, who would better support his policies, who had a greater affinity with the man in the White House. Grimm is preparing to run that primary again, declaring earnestly at the end of the interview that “when all the dust settles and years pass, history’s gonna write that President Trump was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had.”
Malliotakis, the only Republican to have officially announced her candidacy, said she is focusing her efforts differently.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “I’m just running for November.”
If Malliotakis does get a primary — in addition to Grimm, City Councilman Joe Borelli has not ruled out a run — she will have to defend a number of less than favorable statements she made about the president. In 2016, she was Marco Rubio’s New York campaign chair. She voted for Trump that November, but in 2017, when she ran for mayor against Bill de Blasio, she told the New York Daily News editorial board that she had “mixed feelings” about taking that vote. If she had it to do over again, she said, she would have written in Rubio, whom she said she wished had been the nominee. She said she disagreed with Trump on the transgender military ban, on building the wall, on ending protections for DREAMers, and on the travel ban.
“In 2017, that’s the only question I was ever asked during my mayoral race: What was my opinion of what Trump did today? Which was very unfair when I’m trying to actually put forward policy proposals on a referendum on Bill de Blasio,” Malliotakis said, when asked where she stood on Trump today.
“I mostly agree with the president,” she said, adding, “I think he would have an ally in me.” In 2020, she said, she’ll “of course” vote for him.
But, she emphasized, “I’m an independent voice.” She promised to fight him on anything that would harm the district.
The Republicans in competitive districts who didn’t fall to the blue wave in 2018, people like Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who won reelection in a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, were people who had fostered a distinctly personal brand. In an election that, to a large degree, played out as a referendum on Trump, someone like Hurd was not so inextricably linked to the president. A focus for Republicans in 2020 is finding candidates who are right for the district, and who offer a real contrast to the Democratic incumbent. “You have to run your race for your district,” said Matt Gorman, the communications director for the House Republican campaign arm in 2018. In a competitive district, that means starting off early “to show that independence, run that type of race if you need to.”
Trump may be popular on Staten Island, but that was the case in 2018 as well. “Even in a Trump-dominated district, you still have to run your own race,” said Gorman.
For some local Republicans, focusing on general election voters is the wrong idea.
“She’s just gonna lose too much of her base,” Grimm said. “And I know that she makes the same mistake Donovan has always made — she thinks she’s wooing over Democrats by having those policies.”
“She can’t win that seat,” he added, “just like Donovan couldn’t.” He said he delivered that message to Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy during a “courtesy” visit to discuss his intentions to run. McCarthy’s leadership PAC donated to Malliotakis’s campaign, and Grimm said the Republican leader made his preferences plain in the meeting.
Grimm said Malliotakis’s “very disrespectful” Trump comments make him worry less about repeating last year’s presidential endorsement-induced face-plant. “I would be beyond shocked,” he said, if Trump backed Malliotakis. “I have too much faith in my president.”
He said that many of the things she takes credit for doing for the district in the state legislature are things that he really did when he was in office.
“I can say that she rode my coattails throughout her entire career that I was in,” Grimm said of his relationship with his likely rival.
“Well,” she said in an interview the following day, “I didn’t ride them to prison.”
Rose has his own party problems.
“Don’t do impeachment, Max. You’ll lose two votes,” a man shouted as he and a woman walked past.
“Some of those Democrats in your party, tell them to get more realistic,” said Smith, the man who flagged Rose down while walking his dog.
“New York state and New York City’s killing us” on taxes, David Pfuhler told Rose when Rose, making the rounds in the neighborhood, knocked on his door.
Rose has been held up as the poster boy for a different way forward for the Democratic Party, with a number of stories written about him as the moderate Democrat’s answer to New York City’s most famous freshman member of Congress, avowed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rose is crafting a reputation as a “no-nonsense, no-bullshit kind of guy,” said Jonathan Yedin, a Democratic political consultant who lives in the district — the kind of congressman who says he can’t be bothered with the political drama and knocks on people’s doors in May of an off year just to say "what’s up." Even Grimm acknowledges that Rose is “working, he’s showing up.” But his efforts to win reelection in a district Trump won with Trump actually on the ballot will play out against the backdrop of a 21-person-and-counting Democratic presidential primary that has often, already, felt like a race to the left.
Rose would like, instead, to talk about soccer season.
“There’s three things that you can predict in this world: You can predict death, taxes, soccer season’s gonna happen,” he said. In Staten Island, this sacred rite takes place on a federally managed field. Each year, Rose said, the federal entities involved “fuck it up.” This year, the National Parks Service said the government shutdown delayed necessary maintenance. Rose and other local officials — including Malliotakis — sent letters offering help to ensure the fields opened on time. A week later, Rose and the Staten Island borough president announced a resolution allowing the fields to open as planned. On Rose’s watch, he said, soccer season starts on time.
It is both a dizzying pivot out from a question about Ocasio-Cortez and a metaphor for how he sees the role of government. Rose has big, sweeping goals for the country: A “carbon-free economy”; dramatic infrastructure projects. “But if you can’t get soccer season open on time,” he said, “then how the hell is someone ever gonna put their faith in you that we’re gonna get anything big done? They’re never gonna believe, they’re never gonna get behind you.”
So Rose offers to come pick up Pfuhler’s trash himself if he has any trouble with delivery, despite Pfuhler’s assurances that he’s well aware that’s not a congressman’s job. One woman answers her door and tells him she’s going down to DC soon and was trying to figure out how to set up a White House tour. Rose can do that, he says. And how about a Capitol tour as well?
Soon, Rose will open a joint office in the Brooklyn part of the district with state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and City Councilman Justin Brannan, Gounardes told BuzzFeed News. It’ll be “one-stop shopping for all of our constituents,” said Gounardes, who, like Rose, pulled off an unexpected victory against a Republican incumbent last fall.
The two run into each other greeting constituents at subway stations in the morning, and Gounardes sees a shared effort to “hone in on the hyperlocal stuff that affects everybody.”
“We have our values, we have our principles, we’re both good Democrats, and we both want to do a lot of big important things. But we also want to be sure we’re taking care of the little things,” Gounardes said.
The little things might not be enough to win reelection. One reason for much of Republicans’ optimism for 2020 is the mainstream rise of democratic socialism within the Democratic Party, and an outsize focus on the comments and very far left policy positions of a group of House freshmen including Ocasio-Cortez. It’s the kind of stuff that can seem too extreme for some Democratic voters, and Republicans hope that it will drag down all Democrats on the ballot, even those who aren’t that far left.
It’s the Democratic version of Republicans’ Trump dilemma. Each time Rep. Rashida Tlaib calls for impeachment, her colleagues are asked, again, if they, too, want impeachment. When Rep. Ilhan Omar sent a tweet using anti-Semitic tropes, Democrats had to pick a side. Rose has said emphatically that he is not a socialist. And he condemned Omar’s remarks in no uncertain terms. But that hasn’t made Republicans any less enthusiastic about tying him to those Democrats. Malliotakis recently sent a press release demanding Rose call on Omar to resign from the Foreign Affairs Committee over comments she made this month that US policy was in large part to blame for the crisis in Venezuela.
“Look, I don’t believe he’s a socialist,” said Malliotakis, who points to her mother fleeing communist Cuba in decrying socialism as “communism-lite.”
“But,” she added, “certainly he’s empowering them by being a member of that conference and giving Nancy Pelosi the gavel.”
Rose has worked to carve out an identity that’s distinct from his party. But still, New York’s 11th Congressional District is a “bellwether district,” said Yedin, who has among his clients Michael McMahon, the last Democrat to represent the area in Congress. McMahon, now the Staten Island district attorney, was one of the Democrats who voted against Obamacare; he still lost reelection in 2010.
“This is a district that kind of goes both ways,” Yedin said. “It goes in the direction of the political winds.”
Jonathan Yedin is a Democratic political consultant who lives in the district. A previous version of the story misstated his name.