It’s official: the battle royal between Republicans hoping to unseat newly elected Democratic Rep. Max Rose in 2020 has begun.
Last week, GOP Assemblywoman and 2017 mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis — who in Albany represents many of the same Brooklyn neighborhoods that Rose does down in Washington, DC — filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to begin raising funds for her future campaign against the freshman Congressman.
Malliotakis teased her decision in a Jan. 18 tweet, which included a photo of her with the House of Representatives’s top Republican — Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, from California — whom she thanked for “facilitating” a phone call with President Trump. Of course, those who read between the lines knew her desired message was that national Republicans are recruiting her to win back New York’s 11th Congressional District — which also includes all of Staten Island — from Rose and the Democratic Party.
Also expected to reenter the fray on the right is Michael Grimm, the convicted felon who held Rose’s seat from 2011 to 2015, before resigning after pleading guilty to tax fraud. Grimm — who last year lost a primary bid for his old seat to his successor, former GOP Rep. Dan Donovan, who went on to lose to Rose in the general election — promptly went on the attack after Malliotakis made her filing statement, declaring, “It is comical to expect Republican voters will want someone as unprincipled, unaccomplished, and underwhelming as Nicole to share the ballot with President Trump in 2020. This is a joke … just like her mayoral debacle was.” Talk about taking the gloves off!
Staten Island GOP Councilman Joe Borelli is being floated as a serious candidate, too. He served as a co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign, and has unabashedly supported the president in the national media. Borelli — whom many see as well-respected, smart, and politically savvy — reportedly also recently went down to Washington, DC, to meet with Republican leaders about a potential campaign.
Still, Malliotakis has already earned some telling support for her bid, including an endorsement from the Brooklyn Conservative Party, which always plays a significant role in local Republican primaries. State GOP powerbroker John Catsimatidis — whom I work for, and who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2013 — has also pledged his allegiance to the Assemblywoman.
The early jockeying to oust Rose comes as a response to what many see as a disturbing move to the left among Democrats since the November election that put him in office. Kings County constituents make up less than a third of Rose’s 11th Congressional District, but its Brooklyn electorate has moved further and further to the left since the late ‘90s — one reason why past Republicans who’ve held the seat typically win most of their votes from Staten Island, and few from Brooklyn.
Last fall, for instance, Rose and Donovan virtually ran neck and neck on Staten Island, where the Democrat won 49.9 percent of votes, compared to the Republican incumbent’s 48.6 percent. But Brooklyn was another story, with Donovan getting only 39 percent of votes, compared to Rose’s 58 percent.
Prior to his loss to Rose last year, Donovan earned about 52 percent of the Kings County vote when he defeated Democratic rival Richard Reichard to win the office in 2016. Before that, the last time a GOP candidate won this side of the Narrows while campaigning to represent the area was in 2006, when former Rep. Vito Fossella claimed the seat — which then represented New York’s 13th Congressional District — after making a dedicated effort to boost his political operation in Brooklyn.
Fossella ultimately netted some 51 percent of the Kings County vote in his race after moving his district office to a more central location, and hiring more staffers dedicated to the borough — including this columnist, who served as his operation’s Brooklyn Director.
Indeed, data from the past eight congressional elections in the district, from 2004 through 2018, shows Republican candidates averaging roughly 45 percent of the Kings County vote, and roughly 55 percent of that on Staten Island. The key to a GOP victory is pushing a candidate who will not get totally decimated in Brooklyn. And Malliotakis, who won about 70 percent of the vote in the district during her unsuccessful mayoral campaign, could hold that key if she can again convince those voters to return to her corner.
The Assemblywoman at this moment seems to be the GOP’s best positioned candidate to defeat Rose come 2020, thanks to her years of service to those Brooklyn neighborhoods she has represented in Albany since 2011 — and because she is now the borough’s only Republican elected official.
But winning won’t be a cakewalk for her or any candidate. The local Republican Party still remains rudderless following the departure of its former chairman, Bay Ridgite Craig Eaton, and its presence in the borough shrunk after many long-time pols, most notably former state Sen. Marty Golden, lost their seats last fall. Many GOP clubs have gone by the wayside over the past few years as well.
Any Republican candidate must overcome all of these challenges — and the mighty task of turning around almost two decades of polling data — if she or he wants to reclaim the 11th Congressional District for the GOP.
Bob Capano is a professor of political science of more than 15 years, who has previously worked for local Democratic and Republican pols, and as the chairman of the Brooklyn Reform Party.