How Trumpian red wave gave southern Brooklyn and Staten Island GOP a lifeline
Political unknown Mark Szuszkiewicz spent about $1,000 on his Coney Island Assembly race.
But how he spent his time apparently proved more valuable: He attended rallies with fellow Republicans and knocked on GOP voters’ doors to remind them to remember to bubble in his name on the ballot — after voting for President Donald Trump, of course.
As of Thursday night, Szuszkiewicz was running ahead of incumbent Mathylde Frontus by 2,000 votes or about nine percentage points — making him one of several Republicans in southern Brooklyn and Staten Island who find themselves with a significant lead over Democratic rivals with mail-in ballots yet to be counted.
Political strategists and Republican officials attributed the red gains chiefly to Trump’s spot atop the ticket. While the majority of city voters went for former Vice President Joe Biden and local Democrats, swing districts pivoted right this year, to the surprise of some observers — and even to some local GOP campaigns.
“These candidates are trying and they’re doing their own thing, but they’re being pushed and pulled by national waves,” said Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at CUNY’s College of Staten Island. “And Trump is magic on Staten Island, there’s no doubt about it.”
Malliotakis’ big lead
No other Republican in the city benefited more than Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who declared victory against Freshman Rep. Max Rose in their Staten Island and southern Brooklyn congressional race Tuesday night with a 37,158-vote lead.
Rose has refused to concede, pointing to the 52,000 mail-in ballots requested in the district amid the pandemic. At least 42,000 have been returned, forecasting a count that could drag out for weeks.
Both sides had expected an absentee ballot showdown, but had anticipated a much closer race with a poll showing the duo separated by two percentage points.
Rose’s path to victory would’ve likely been to win by a wide margin in the Brooklyn side of the district, as he did in 2018, and getting Trump voters on Staten Island to split their ticket for him. Neither panned out.
Trump had won 110,094 votes on Staten Island by Thursday evening. Malliotakis followed closely behind with 104,626. She also beat Rose in Brooklyn by 4,000 votes.
The Malliotakis-Rose contest, characterized by weeks of negative advertising, drew national attention — and money — given the fight for control of the House, which will remain in Democratic hands.
PACs poured a total of $11.9 million into the race, while Malliotakis raised $3 million and Rose pulled in $8.3 million — a record for a Staten Island race.
Rose, an Army veteran, ran as a centrist Democrat, while Malliotakis slammed him as a leftist and attached herself to the president, who won that congressional district in 2016 and again on Tuesday.
A voter backlash
But some Republicans say it was more than Trump that helped motivate voters to rally around the GOP ticket in conservative pockets of the city.
And unlike much of New York City, Staten Island and some southern Brooklyn neighborhoods are majority white. For instance, the district where Malliotakis squared off against Rose is 69.3 percent white.
While not all of the area’s Republicans explicitly campaigned on supporting Trump, their bids were light on criticism of the president and echoed his “law and order” mantra.
City GOP leaders credited the wins to a backlash to calls for defunding the police, decisions surrounding how the city would reopen, and certain crime spikes they say are connected to new state bail reform laws.
The down-ballot lift from the leader of the party helped all the Republicans on Staten Island and in several southern Brooklyn races.
Former prosecutor Michael Tannousis retained Malliotakis’ Assembly seat for the GOP, which spans Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge and Staten Island’s East Shore, beating Brandon Patterson. And Ron Castorina, former head of the Staten Island Republican Party, bested a Democratic candidate for a borough-wide judgeship.
Vito Bruno was on Thursday leading freshman Democratic State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents several southern Brooklyn neighborhoods, by about 6,000 votes with 13,000 mail-in ballots yet to be counted, according to the Board of Elections.
Meanwhile, Assemblymember Michael Cusick — a conservative Democrat who chairs the Staten Island Democratic Party and is the dean of the borough’s state delegation — was trailing Republican Anthony DeGuerre by roughly 1,200 votes. It wasn’t immediately clear how many mail-in ballots would be tallied in that race.
Nearly all of the Democrats had a tremendous fundraising advantage against their Republican rivals. But aside from Tannousis’ and Castorina’s race, none of the Democrats have conceded.
All of them are pinning their hopes on tens of thousands of mail-in ballots that have been returned to the city’s Board of Elections.
State law mandates that absentee ballots, which must be postmarked by Nov. 3, must be accepted through Nov. 10. The agency’s secretary told CBS 2 that the count could extend into December. Canvassing, a process where local election boards begin accounting for every ballot, will likely begin after Nov. 6.
“I am confident that once these votes are counted, we will prevail,” Gounardes said in a statement.
A long way in two years
The possible Republican gains in Brooklyn and Staten Island are in sharp contrast to 2018, when the GOP lost several congressional representatives — including the only one to represent New York City — as well as control of the State Senate and were locked out of the state’s executive offices.
When January 2019 rolled around, Malliotakis was the only Republican elected official left in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn GOP chair Ted Ghorra told THE CITY that candidates running this year often banded together and unabashedly addressed residents’ concerns about crime and businesses struggling due to the pandemic.
“They’ve worked exceedingly hard. They had a tremendous effort on the ground,” said Ghorra. “Law and order and the crime issue started to spike, quality of life issues started to spike. The chickens just came home to roost in that regard and honestly people came out and participated in the election at a level that is fantastic for democracy.”
Rose’s likely defeat comes after three years of campaigning aggressively as a moderate Democrat. He regularly criticized “limousine liberals” and the party’s rising progressive wing. Like Malliotakis, Rose targeted Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is unpopular on Staten Island.
But Republican strategists pointed out that Rose won his 2018 race when Trump wasn’t on top of the ticket. Rose’s GOP opponent, incumbent Dan Donovan, was more “low key” and wasn’t willing to “go for the jugular politically,” Flangan noted.
‘Our broken politics’
Malliotakis relentlessly hammered Rose for supporting Trump’s impeachment and for participating in an anti-racist protest, which she spun as evidence that he supported the vague notion of defunding the police.
“People thought what he was selling in 2018 was not what he gave them in 2019 and 2020, so they turned their back on him,” said Leticia Remauro, who ran Malliotakis’ failed mayoral bid in 2017.
Rose, who doesn’t back defunding the NYPD, spent part of his speech on Election Day addressing his participation in the Black Lives Matter protest.
“Black parents worry a chance encounter could end with their baby boy or baby girl never coming home. And yes, the wife or husband of a police officer feels their heart leave their chest every time a tour starts, scared the love of their life may never walk back through the door,” said Rose. “Only in our broken politics, would it be controversial to believe both are legitimate fears.”
A spokesperson for Rose’s campaign said that the rep is proud of what he accomplished over the past two years — and noted he ran ahead of Biden in total votes in the 11th CD.
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