Congressman Michael Grimm declared victory in a hard-fought battle for re-election tonight, overcoming a federal indictment and a well-funded Democratic challenger to hang on to his seat representing Staten Island and a sliver of south Brooklyn.
“They hit me with everything they had, everything you could imagine, but we’re here tonight victorious,” Mr. Grimm told a beaming crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn on Staten Island.
Based on returns from the Board of Elections at 11:30 p.m., Mr. Grimm is leading Domenic Recchia Jr. by a 14-point margin: 56 percent to 42 percent, with 92 percent of the votes counted in a highly-watched race that was once regarded as among the closest in the nation but eventually devolved into something of a laughingstock. Mr. Recchia, a former councilman from Brooklyn, called Mr. Grimm to concede around 11 p.m.
The win is a resounding victory for Mr. Grimm, who faces a February trial in Brooklyn federal court on a 20-count indictment on mail and tax fraud charges related to a restaurant he once owned. Mr. Grimm has said the charges are politically motivated — and that the margin of victory shows voters agree.
“This is a referendum on the Obama Justice Department, and the Eastern District of New York,” Mr. Grimm told reporters, referring to the jurisdiction trying him. “There’s no question in my mind about that.”
In addition to being a huge win for Mr. Grimm, it’s also a staggering defeat for Mr. Recchia and national Democrats, who have been guiding his campaign and sinking millions into the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ponied up about $1 million on TV ads, and the House Majority PAC recently plunked down another $1.7 million for the cause. Mr. Recchia’s campaign, which ran ads of its own, had raised $2.3 million as of October 23, and spent close to $1.8 million, with more than $500,000 on hand.
“A few months ago they had us out, we were done — they all had this race in the books already. And then, just to be sure — they dumped $5 million on us,$5 million, that’s the all-time record for a Staten Island seat,” Mr. Grimm told the crowd in his speech. “And that was an attempt to silence Staten Islanders, that’s what that was about: silencing you. And it was about taking away the only federally elected Republican in all of New York City. They could’ve spent $10 million dollars — the people of Staten Island will not be silenced.”
With all that money and what the DCCC deemed an “unprecedented” field operation, Mr. Grimm was seen by many as an incumbent ripe for the plucking, plagued by scandal. It wasn’t just that there is a distinct possibility Mr. Grimm may wind up in jail — the congressman also famously threatened to throw a NY1 reporter off a balcony at the U.S. Capitol, allegedly spent 17 minutes in a bar bathroom with a woman, and had been investigated for his financial dealings with an Israeli rabbi. There was plenty for Mr. Recchia and the Democrats to work with.
Despite plenty of stories shortly after Mr. Grimm’s indictment heralding Mr. Recchia’s chances, Mr. Grimm — never shy about criticizing the media — said today he never doubted he’d be re-elected.
“For a long time, you were writing all the wrong things,” Mr. Grimm told one reporter tonight. “We were never down. You were wrong, we were right.”
Mr. Recchia held his own within the margin of error in an earlier poll, but his campaign fell apart on the trail, where he offered up few policy ideas, plenty of platitudes, and even more gaffes. He could not provide the name of a key fair-trade agreement he was speaking about at an event, and later said running an exchange program had given him foreign policy experience. In televised debates, he shouted at Mr. Grimm, cutting him off, repeatedly referring to the indictment — but then was unable to answer when Mr. Grimm posed him policy questions. His less-than-eloquent moments were highlighted in a Daily Show segment with a title that likely summed up the thoughts of many watching Mr. Recchia trail in the polls to his beleaguered opponent: “Wait, how the f@#ck does that happen?”
The hometown newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, enumerated all of Mr. Grimm’s problems and the way they’d embarrassed the borough — and then endorsed him over Mr. Recchia due to the challenger’s “astonishing incoherence.” The Daily News editorial board called Mr. Grimm “thuggish” — and yet it, too, endorsed him, calling Mr. Recchia “dumb, ill-informed, evasive and inarticulate.”
Compared to Mr. Recchia’s spending, Mr. Grimm ran a shoestring campaign. National Republicans all but abandoned him after the indictment, leaving him to fend for himself save a $100,000 boost from the Defending Main Street PAC and mailers from the state and county GOP. Still, his own campaign managed to raise $1.9 million in net contributions — much of it pre-indictment — and he spent $1.8 million, according to October 23 filings. Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, that left him in the red, with $325,352 on hand — and $431,788 in debt.
He had few paid campaign staffers and could not run nearly as many ads as the Democrats did. But he blanketed the district with lawn signs — including ones highlighting Mr. Recchia’s vote to hike property taxes after September 11, a tactic Mr. Grimm also used in his bid to unseat former Congressman Michael McMahon in 2010. The former FBI agent and Marin sought to tap into the “forgotten borough” ethos of Staten Island — where residents often feel ignored at best, and targeted for unpopular policies like high tolls at worst.
“He’s got out back,” campaign signs promised. In explaining why he threatened to break NY1’s Michael Scotto in half, “like a boy,” he said something many a Staten Islander might have uttered about a bad moment: “Sometimes I get my Italian up.” Mr. Grimm repeatedly apologized for his threats, but at the same time promised to fight for the borough. All the while he painted Mr. Recchia as a Brooklyn outsider and a “puppet” of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rev. Al Sharpton, who are both deeply unpopular on Staten Island.
While Mr. Grimm was successful at the polls, whether he actually serves out his term may depend on votes cast by just 12 people — on a federal jury. Mr. Grimm has said he would step down if he was “unable to serve,” which presumably includes if he were incarcerated. That would trigger a special election, in which both Democrats and Republicans could start fresh with new candidates, a prospect welcomed by many — including politicians already jockeying for position to run.
After a truly bitter campaign, Mr. Grimm indicated the phone call between himself and Mr. Recchia tonight was a brief one.
“He said, ‘Congratulations congressman,'” Mr. Grimm said. “I said, ‘thank you.'”