It may be a winning argument in the keenly conservative niche of Staten Island, Republican strategists say.
Already, Grimm and Donovan have competed to out-Trump each other.
After a Tuesday campaign stop, Grimm said an audio tape of migrant children wailing in a federal detention facility should not influence the debate over immigration policy.
“A woman has to go to work, and her child at day care, and you’re going to hear those same exact things,” Grimm said.
Donovan, who once cautioned that border security would not mean “a 2,000-mile, 15-foot brick wall,” also has begun to sound more like the president.
“Build that wall!” he said at the Saturday rally, picking up a chant from the crowd. “Build that damn wall!”
The president himself has intervened, tweeting last month that Republicans “can’t take any chances” by nominating a felon. He suggested it risked a repeat of the Republicans’ 2017 loss in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama, after the party nominated Roy Moore, who was accused of pursuing teenage girls decades ago. (Trump cited in his endorsement what he said was Donovan’s support of the president’s tax-cut plan — which the congressman did not back.)
Trump’s former communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, campaigned with Grimm. The president’s personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, campaigned for Donovan.
Affinity for Trump would not be a card to play in much of New York City, but most of the district’s voters live in Staten Island, the most conservative of New York’s five boroughs. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won just 41 percent of the borough’s vote, the lowest for any Democratic nominee for president since 1992; she won the rest of the city, including Trump’s childhood home of Queens and current home of Manhattan, with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has won two terms in landslides, has never won Staten Island.
Grimm has presented himself as a victim of a politicized justice system — the same one he says is trying to bring down the president. Some of Grimm’s supporters see a bias that started long before Trump took office.
“How come Al Sharpton’s walking around, when he did four or five times as much as Mike did?” asked Sal Mos, 54, a retired police officer. “Why’s [Sharpton] walking around with no problem? Because Mike Grimm is white.”
No one disputes the facts of the case, least of all Grimm. It began with a probe into a rabbi who raised half a million dollars for Grimm’s 2010 campaign, expanded into an investigation of Grimm himself and ended with a 20-count indictment over workers paid off the books at a Grimm-run restaurant.
Grimm pleaded guilty to one count of tax fraud because, in his words, he “didn’t have $500,000 to pay lawyers.”
Grimm compares his case not only to investigations into Trump but to the prosecution of Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative pundit who committed campaign finance fraud, went to prison and recently received a presidential pardon.
“The Obama Justice Department was weaponized for political purposes,” Grimm said from behind the desk at his campaign office.
Donovan, who was Staten Island’s longtime district attorney before he went to Congress, argues that Grimm is telling a sympathetic story to distract from the truth. After his Saturday rally, Donovan chided reporters for giving Grimm so much attention — “I’m sure he’s a great story” — and unloaded on his challenger for comparing his trials to Trump’s.
“There’s nothing similar about them at all,” he said. “The president never committed tax fraud. The president never went to federal prison. [Grimm] said he was prosecuted by a rogue Justice Department in the Obama administration? He’d be prosecuted by Donald Trump’s Justice Department if he did that now.”
Given his record, Grimm would not be allowed to run for state office. But there is no rule against running for a House seat, convicted or not.
Louisiana’s William Jefferson, a longtime Democratic congressman from New Orleans, won a 2006 primary after FBI raids on his home and his congressional office; he won a 2008 primary after being indicted on 16 charges of corruption. (He lost the general election to a Republican.)
Grimm himself won reelection in 2014 — a strongly Republican year — when the charges against him were well known and after a public threat to “break . . . in half” a reporter.
Donovan has focused on that election to argue that it was dishonest for Grimm to tell voters that he would be exonerated.
“He betrayed our trust. He told us he was innocent,” Donovan said at a debate last week.
But Donovan has spent most of his time hyping his ties to Trump, whom he has known for 20 years and who is beloved among Staten Island Republicans. He’s introduced legislation that would require post offices to display Trump’s official portrait. His ads and social media feature a photo of him and the president on Air Force One.
On Saturday, Donovan shared a stage with Giuliani and former “Saturday Night Live” star Joe Piscopo, standing behind a sign that blended Donovan’s logo with the president’s 2016 campaign banner.
Weeks earlier — at the same Hilton Garden Inn, on the west side of the island — Grimm had rallied with short-term presidential aide Scaramucci, laying his own claim to the brand. In mailings to Republican voters, Grimm warns that the president is “under attack from the radical left, the biased media, the deep state, and weak Republicans,” citing Donovan’s support for a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Mike’s a great guy, and his agenda and policies are uniquely aligned with President Trump,” Scaramucci said in an interview. “I mean, no offense to Dan Donovan. I’m sure he’s a good guy. But he voted against the president three times.”
Grimm’s supporters can rattle off those votes on a moment’s notice — the health-care bill, the tax cut and a measure to protect young immigrants — one not tied to any new border security as most Republicans demanded.
“He’s fighting for illegal aliens and Obamacare,” Grimm said.
Those attacks have baffled Republicans, who over the years watched both Grimm and Donovan lock down a competitive seat by casting some liberal votes.
Both are now running as conservatives, a messaging shift that has delighted Democrats, who plan on competing for the district despite Trump’s 10-point win. Max Rose, a veteran and first-time candidate favored by national Democrats, argued that either Republican will emerge from the primary having shed the moderate brand that helped elect them.
“They’re running to see who can go how far to the right,” Rose said.
Democrats are more confident about facing Grimm than Donovan, looking to a November election where some of the current congressman’s political and labor allies would stay neutral or back Rose. But Grimm, a backslapping campaigner who sees his lawn signs all over the district, argues that Donovan would pose the biggest risk to the party.
At Donovan’s weekend rally, Republicans acknowledged that it would take some work to rev up voters about the incumbent.
“Unfortunately, it’s not an election that’s going to draw out people,” Giuliani said. “They probably assume [Dan] is going to win. They probably ask themselves: How can a convict, in a law-and-order borough, a law-and-order district, have a chance with law-and-order Republicans?”
But for plenty of Republicans, it wouldn’t be enough to attack Grimm on his tangle with the law.
Leslie and Libardo Pardo arrived early to Donovan’s Saturday rally, ready to end Grimm’s post-prison political comeback. Even as they backed Grimm’s opponent, however, they just couldn’t shake the feeling that Grimm was wronged.
“Unfortunately, he was set up,” said Libardo Pardo, 60.
“He did it, but it was a witch hunt,” said Leslie Pardo, 52. “It was a setup.”