Two Democratic House Challengers Worth Watching

by Stuart Rothenberg June 5, 2013 · 9:45 AM EDT

Democratic prospects of taking back the House in 2014 may be remote, but two Democratic congressional challengers I interviewed recently have the potential to knock off GOP incumbents next year. At the very least, their races are worth watching.

New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia is off and running in a Staten Island/Brooklyn district against two-term GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm, who can’t afford to take this challenger lightly.

And in the Florida Panhandle, attorney Gwen Graham, daughter of former Florida Gov. and former Sen. Bob Graham, is mounting what looks to be a potentially serious challenge to two-term GOP Rep. Steve Southerland II.

In their interviews, both Democrats talked about their desire to work with Republicans in Congress and their local roots, though there is no reason to believe that either would stray very far from his or her party.

Recchia, who says that he is pro-abortion rights without exceptions and supports marriage equality, is an attorney who specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. He is critical of House Republicans for delaying Congress’ response after Hurricane Sandy.

Graham, who spent years raising her children before becoming the in-house attorney for her school district, criticizes Southerland for failing to work across the aisle. She has been put “On the List,” by EMILY’s List, which limits its support to Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Stylistically, Recchia and Graham appear to come from different planets.

Recchia oozes Brooklyn, a part of which he represents on the city council, and he has an accent to match. Personable and down-to-earth, he is a throwback to the ethnic politicians of the 1950s and 1960s. (Read more about Recchia in Roll Call’s interview with him for our politics blog, At the Races.)

Graham looks and sounds more like the current crop of political candidates. She is poised, polished and ideal for TV — not your typical first-time office-seeker. (Read more about Graham in Roll Call’s interview with her for our politics blog, At the Races.)

Recchia, who is term-limited on the city council, started to run for Congress in 2008 against then-Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y. But he suspended his campaign after his wife was mugged. He ultimately dropped his bid.

Grimm won the seat in 2010, when he defeated freshman Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y., by just 3 points. The Republican was re-elected easily two years later.

Recchia raised just more than $411,000 through March 31, a strong first quarter that can be explained, in part, by the large number of “double max” (primary and general election) contributions. All of the challenger’s contributions came from individuals.

Grimm, on the other hand, raised about $320,000 in the first quarter of 2013, a little more than half of it coming from political action committees. He ended the quarter with just more than $300,000 in the bank, about $100,000 less than Recchia.

Recchia will have to show that he can solve a geographic problem if he is going to oust Grimm.

While Grimm was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, he lives in Staten Island. Recchia lives in and represents part of Brooklyn. That may seem like a small difference west of the Hudson River, but it’s an important one to the residents of Staten Island, the most conservative borough of New York City.

Grimm lost the Brooklyn portion of the district in 2010 to incumbent McMahon, who hailed from Staten Island and represented the borough on the New York City Council. Two years later, Grimm lost Brooklyn again, this time to Democratic challenger Mark Murphy. But the Republican carried the Staten Island part of the district comfortably both times.

Given the GOP’s strength in Staten Island, and the fact that Staten Island voters constituted 72 percent of all votes in 2012 and 75 percent of district voters in 2010, Recchia obviously has an arithmetic problem.

Graham could face a challenge winning her party’s nomination, since 2012 nominee Al Lawson, an African-American former state senator, is considering running again.

Last year, Lawson defeated a white Democratic primary opponent who was preferred by many Democratic insiders, and since the district’s electorate is between one-fifth and one-quarter black, African-Americans make up a large percentage of any Democratic primary. That means Lawson can’t be discounted if he runs again.

Graham believes that she has strength in the black community, and that could help her in a primary against Lawson. And there is no doubt in my mind that Graham would be the far stronger Democratic nominee against Southerland in November.

The 2nd District is already extremely polarized along partisan lines. Lawson carried the district’s largest county, Leon (Tallahassee), easily, but he lost 11 of the district’s remaining 13 counties. Leon is home to two large state universities and state government, and it is reliably Democratic. But the second-largest county, Bay (Panama City), is as Republican as Leon is Democratic, and most of the vote outside Leon County is conservative.

Moderate white Democrats (such as former Rep. Allen Boyd) have carried the 2nd District, but African-American and liberal nominees have problems reaching the 50 percent mark. Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush (2004) each carried the district narrowly, and Southerland won re-election in 2012 with 52.7 percent.

Given that Southerland has been one of the most conservative members of the House, Graham might be able to appeal to Republican and swing voters who are uncomfortable both with national Democrats and the current congressman, though the polarized nature of the district and the midterm dynamic with President Barack Obama in the White House creates a tough political environment for her.

Recchia and Graham start off as credible recruits who have challenges to overcome. They must hope that the national political environment doesn’t make their jobs harder between now and November 2014.