Democrats Looking Beyond New York 11 Special Election

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 28, 2015 · 10:51 AM EST

The date hasn’t even been set, but Republicans have all but won the special election in New York’s 11th District.

The Staten Island-based district has swung from being a top Democratic target in the midterms all the way across the competitive spectrum to Democrats punting the opportunity to win the seat in a special election.

Last cycle, GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm won re-election by more than dozen points in the face of a 20-count indictment and millions of dollars of Democratic attack ads. After the election, Grimm pleaded guilty to one count of tax fraud and earlier this month resigned from Congress, setting up what looked like yet another competitive special election in the Empire State.

Democrats were preparing to nominate former Rep. Michael E. McMahon or Assemblyman Michael Cusick in order to put the seat into play and, at a minimum, lay the foundation for a full takeover push in the 2016 general election. But Cusick told the Staten Island Advance Sunday he is not running, and McMahon has dialed back his initial interest to nearly zero.

There were some rumblings a couple weeks ago that Democratic prospects in the special were waning anyway. Then a recent Democratic poll publicly poured a bucket of cold water on any near-term plans of taking the seat.

Voters in the district are still in their midterm mood. A Republican candidate led a Democratic candidate on the generic ballot, 42 percent to 30 percent, according to the Jan. 16-18 survey by Global Strategy Group for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, also casts a shadow over the district with his 26 percent favorable/68 percent unfavorable rating.

Local GOP leaders are primed to nominate Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan. Donovan’s office failed to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, earning the office considerable criticism in some circles. But Donovan’s standing in the 11th District remains solid, according to the Democratic poll of 404 registered voters.

Donovan had 54 percent favorable/14 percent unfavorable rating in the district compared to McMahon’s 45 percent favorable/15 percent unfavorable rating and Cusick’s 36 percent favorable/13 percent unfavorable rating. President Barack Obama was at 44 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable.

Donovan led Cusick, 48 percent to 28 percent, in a potential matchup. But what might have been most disturbing for Democratic strategists was the so-called informed ballot, which includes information about potential candidates and should have produced a more optimistic outlook for the Democrats. Instead, Donovan held a strong 49-percent to 33-percent advantage under that scenario, showing little Democratic opportunity.

Some Democratic strategists aren’t excited the entire 54-page poll, including crosstabs, was leaked to Capital, a New York State media outlet. But the numbers give the DCCC cover not to sink money into the special election contest. And the party is now likely to nominate a sacrificial lamb instead of risking one of their top-tier choices getting clobbered and dampening enthusiasm for 2016.

Since Democrats are shelving their plans to use the special election as a stepping stone to the 2016 election, there is incentive for the contest to be held sooner rather than later. Cusick, McMahon, or any other aspiring challenger for 2016 will have to sit on the sidelines until the special election is over.

But Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is given wide discretion on when to call for an election, and it’s unclear when he will do so. Multiple Democratic strategists don’t regard Cuomo as being particularly concerned with House Democrats.

Democrats are determined to keep the 11th District in play in 2016, when presidential turnout could improve their chances. Obama won the district with 52 percent in 2012. But there are plenty of unanswered questions before handicapping the next general election contest.

How strong of an incumbent will Donovan be once he takes office? Whom will Democrats nominate? And what is the national political environment and which party, if either, will it benefit?

Unfortunately for political junkies, it looks like the special election in New York’s 11th District won’t come close to matching the hype. But there is still a chance the seat hosts a competitive race next year.