Rating New York’s 11th District and One of My Worst Mistakes as a Political Handicapper

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 28, 2014 · 3:12 PM EDT

New York Rep. Michael Grimm’s arrest reminded me of one of my worst mistakes as a political handicapper.

In May 2006, the FBI raided Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson’s offices and home on suspicion of corruption. I assumed that since agents found $90,000 cash wrapped in aluminum foil in the Democrat’s freezer, that the congressman would lose re-election.

On Nov. 29, 2006, I wrote what I thought was a long, compelling and analytical story for The Rothenberg Political Report about how Jefferson would lose re-election. The congressman received a paltry 30 percent in the initial November primary. The state party endorsed his Democratic opponent, along with former Sens. J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux. Did I mention that the FBI found $90,000 cash in his freezer? Surely voters would show Jefferson the door.

I was wrong.

Just 10 days later, Jefferson won 57 percent to 43 percent over Democrat Karen Carter. It wasn’t until six months later that the congressman was indicted on corruption charges. But Jefferson still won his next Democratic primary and runoff and narrowly lost in the general election, 49.6 percent to 46.8 percent to Republican Joseph “Ahn” Cao.

Jefferson was found guilty in 2009 and is now serving part of a 13-year sentence in a prison camp in Texas.

So last week when the news about Grimm’s legal peril started to become public, I paused a little longer more than probably most people. That being said, the New York congressman’s political situation is considerably different than what Jefferson’s was.

Jefferson represented a very Democratic district and he was able to survive as long as he did, in part because of his ability to rally his Democratic base. Grimm was already in a competitive bid for re-election in the 11th District and rallying the Republican base won’t get him across the finish line. And Grimm has now already been indicted. That puts the Republican past the point, legally, where Jefferson was in 2006. 

Up until this point, the key question was whether a Democrat from Brooklyn (35 percent of the district) could defeat a Republican from Staten Island ( 65 percent of the district). The answer was, probably not, particularly in his midterm election. But now that the conversation has shifted to a Brooklyn Democrat against a Staten Island Republican who has been arrested, Grimm’s electoral career (and Republicans’ hold on the 11th District) are in much worse shape.

It appears that the only realistic way for Grimm to be removed from the ballot is for him to be nominated for a judgeship. That is easier than you might think, but Grimm showed no indication of stepping aside in his press conference on Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, former New York City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. is running on the Democratic side and is a credible contender.

The dust is still settling and we will re-evaluate our rating of the race as necessary. But for now, the indictment and subsequent case is a huge distraction for Grimm, at a minimum, and hands Democrats an easy message and set of headlines to use in the general election.

We are changing our Rothenberg Political Report rating of New York’s 11th District from Lean Republican to Lean Democrat, and the race becomes Democrats’ best opportunity to defeat a Republican incumbent this cycle.