Over the weekend, the most pointless House candidacy of the 2018 cycle (so far) was launched in Staten Island. Recently released felon and ex-Rep. Michael Grimm announced he would challenge his successor, incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan, for Staten Island’s Republican congressional nomination. This challenge is so much more hand-waving and meaningless than other ongoing incumbent challenges that, naturally, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon had to jump on it immediately.
Bannon and Grimm met at Bannon’s “Breitbart Mansion” in Capitol Hill on Wednesday. A photo of the two was released shortly afterward. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who’s now working for Grimm, said, “We’re joining the Bannon portfolio of Republican challengers to anti-Trump Republican congressmen.” Another Republican strategist at the meeting told the New York Times that “Steve likes the fact that Grimm is a straight-talking, fire-breathing, conservative populist.” For those keeping track of the continuing devolution of “populist” as a meaningful political term, it now refers to people famous for threatening to throw reporters over balconies.
Though eye-popping, Grimm’s imprisonment for tax evasion isn’t even the chief reason why his candidacy reaches new frontiers of stupidity. Second chances, after all, are a wonderful thing. The issue is the stated rationale behind both the candidacy and Bannon’s support for it: that Donovan, as Caputo said, is an “anti-Trump” Republican congressman. “As far as I’m concerned,” Grimm said at his campaign launch speech, “he’s just been a little too busy siding with the Democrats against our president and an agenda that finally puts you and America first.”
That’s a strange way to describe someone who’s voted with Trump 89.4 percent of the time, according to his FiveThirtyEight “Trump score.” (That’s 3.1 percentage points higher than his predicted score based on Trump’s margin of victory in his district.) Donovan also stood by his Trump endorsement after the release of the Access Hollywood tape last October. Per Bannon’s recent 60 Minutes interview, that was supposedly the ultimate test of loyalty.
But Donovan did vote against Trump on a couple of high-profile bills—bills that no Staten Island representative, in his or her right mind, would have supported.
Donovan is the one Republican congressman representing New York City, which would be screwed by most of the Republican agenda this year. (A feature, not a bug.) The recently failed Graham-Cassidy health care bill in the Senate would have transferred funds from large blue states that implemented Obamacare to the best of their ability to red states that did not. And the recently released tax reform framework would punish high tax states and cities by eliminating the state and local tax deduction.
The first major Republican bill that Donovan voted against was the House’s Obamacare repeal bill, the American Health Care Act. This wasn’t a complicated choice, and it wasn’t something that Donovan had to put much thought into. Leaders made a choice to jettison Donovan in order to secure the votes of a handful of upstate New York Republican members. The “Buffalo buyout” shifted Medicaid costs from New York’s counties to the state government—but exempted New York City, effectively putting the state’s burden on them. I saw House Republican leaders aggressively arm-twist many, many members in the lead-up to that vote. They did not bother with Donovan, and probably would have thought less of him if he’d considered voting for something designed to be horrific for his district.
The second thing that caught my eye—and probably, much more than the AHCA vote, caught Bannon’s—was Donovan’s vote against the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act. Among other things, this would have withheld federal grants from states and localities with “sanctuary city” policies. Once again, the GOP had crafted a bill that would have just deprived New York City of a lot of money. Though Donovan is against New York City’s “sanctuary” laws, he said in a statement, “this bill takes consequences to a dangerous extreme by making New York City ineligible for hundreds of millions of dollars every year that go toward thwarting terror attacks.” Once again: Republican leaders put up a bill that would be a major funding loss for New York City. Republican leaders had no expectation that they would get New York City’s House Republican to vote for it. New York City’s House Republican voted against it.
It is not as if Republicans came upon this legislative strategy of screwing New York City this year, either, and Donovan is not the first Staten Island Republican to vote against his party on major issues. During his time as Staten Island’s representative, “straight-talking, fire-breathing, conservative populist” Michael Grimm was considered not just the most centrist members of the House, but the most centrist member of the House. A 2013 study from National Journal placed him at the exact center of the House ideological spectrum, with 217 members to his left and 217 members to his right.
So by nature of their district and the type of New York City–punching legislation that Republicans tend to bring up, Donovan and Grimm would vote more or less the same way. Why, then, is Bannon getting into this? Perhaps to enhance his own brand as leader of the “war” on the “establishment,” whatever the hell that means, and nothing else? If this pointless challenge succeeds—and the comprehensive pointlessness of it leads me to believe, in 2017, that it just might— nothing will change except for Bannon’s bragging rights.