Tuesday’s lesson for congressional candidates: Run local. Run moderate.

Democrat Max Rose declared victory on election night.
Democrat Max Rose declared victory on election night.
Christina Saint Louis
Democrat Max Rose declared victory on election night.

Tuesday’s lesson for congressional candidates: Run local. Run moderate.

Democratic congressional winners reap the rewards of campaigning as centrists in Trump country.
November 7, 2018

As control of the House of Representatives hung in the balance on election night, Democrat Max Rose was thinking bipartisanship as he took the stage to declare an upset victory against incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan. Democrats were one seat closer to winning the House and Rose was about to become the first Democrat to represent Staten Island in Congress since 2010, with a victory that would signal that a ‘“blue wave” of Democratic support had materialized in New York.

But instead of touting his margin of victory or the unlikelihood that a 31-year-old, first-time candidate could defy skeptics and win in a district where he had only lived for a few years, Rose began his victory speech by relaying a message from his vanquished opponent. “He said something that we should all keep in mind,” Rose said at an election night event in central Staten Island, about the phone call in which Donovan conceded.

“He said: ‘Max you are not my enemy.’” For Rose, it was a fitting end to a campaign where he positioned himself more as a pragmatic centrist than an avatar of the Democratic Party’s national agenda. Rose stumped for votes by talking about local infrastructure projects and the area’s struggles with the opioid epidemic rather than President Trump’s many controversies or grand progressive plans for social safety-net expansion or environmental regulation.

Rose was not alone on Nov. 6 in feeling vindicated that running on local issues as a moderate is a winning formula for New York Democrats in formerly red districts. In a year when Democrats were attempting to make big gains in the House, all nine Republican-held districts in New York were potentially competitive. Yet, candidates from the party’s ascendant left wing failed to win a single Republican-held congressional seat in New York, while moderate candidates Anthony Brindisi, Antonio Delgado and Rose toppled three Trump-friendly incumbents by running towards the center and distancing themselves from the national implications of their races.

Perceived independence from one’s national party seemed to help Republicans too. Trump allies Reps. Claudia Tenney and John Faso lost to Brindisi and Delgado, respectively. (Tenney had yet to concede as of press time.) “What we saw in Central New York,” said Luke Perry, a professor of political science at Utica College who is writing a book on the midterms and who was speaking of those two races, “were vulnerable Republican incumbents who aligned themselves with President Trump had a much harder time.” In contrast, fellow upstate Republican Rep. John Katko – who touted his lack of a Trump endorsement – won by a comfortable margin against challenger Dana Balter, who ran further to the left than Brindisi or Delgado.

Similar dynamics played out elsewhere in the state. Progressive Democrats Perry Gershon and Liuba Grechen Shirley lost in Long Island races where they had highlighted their opposition to Trump, while Nate McMurray – who has demanded a recount – fell just short of unseating incumbent Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, in the most Republican district in the state. The competitiveness of that race can largely be attributed to Collins’ federal indictment for alleged securities fraud, but it’s doubtful that McMurray would have come so close had he not run a campaign that appealed to independents with “drain the swamp” rhetoric meant to distance himself from the political class of both parties.

A closer look at the victories of Delgado, Brindisi and Rose shows a few other common dynamics. They all expressed a willingness in the campaign to work with Trump and congressional Republicans on some issues and they all gained notice for declining to say that they would vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker in a Democratic House – although Delgado was less outspoken on the subject than the other two. They also all highlighted issues where they could specifically appeal to Republican voters in their districts, whether it was Brindisi’s opposition to gun control, Rose’s attacks against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, or Delgado’s resistance to supporting “radical” changes to the American healthcare system.

In contrast to some House races in other parts of the country in which Democratic candidates like Kentucky’s Amy McGrath won big in urban strongholds but lost rural areas by hefty margins, Brindisi, Rose and Delgado limited their losses in Republican-friendly areas of their districts. Tenney for example did not post overwhelming numbers in rural areas of the 22nd district to mitigate Brindisi’s victories in the Utica and Binghamton areas. Delgado – who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican – likewise performed well in rural Catskills counties like Sullivan and Rensselaer, despite efforts by Republicans to define him as a “big city rapper.”

Rose, an Army veteran, also followed the game plan that he needed to succeed in a district that is the most suburban and Republican-friendly in New York City. He won by 20 points in the Democratic stronghold of Brooklyn, but also managed to win by a one-point margin in Staten Island, which Trump won by about 15 points in 2016. “I think he did that with his background and his message,” said Mark Murphy, the Democrat who lost the 2012 race in that district to Michael Grimm, who was then under federal indictment.

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Rose’s political identity depends on his military experience.
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Max Rose for Congress

Though turnout in the 2018 midterms was much higher than in 2014, it appeared to equally benefit Republicans and Democrats in these key races, according to Perry.

“Basically what we saw was both sides were galvanized,” he added. What really made the difference in a race like Rose’s was just the right mix of political moderation, fundraising prowess – and ultimately a local message that mattered more to voters than their 2016 votes for Trump, according to Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from Staten Island. The “blue wave” ultimately could only push Rose so much toward victory, she said.

“There was a movement in the country to take back the House and he was the beneficiary of funding and volunteers from outside the district,” she said. “(Yet) he came across as a moderate to many because he was talking about issues that people in Staten Island and southern Brooklyn care about.”

Christina Saint Louis contributed to this report.

Correction: The last time a congresional Democrat held Staten Island was 2010, and Mark Murphy lost a 2012 congressional race to Michael Grimm. An earlier version of this story cited the wrong years. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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