Sarah Palin’s New Endorsement: Michael Grimm

The superstar ex-governor extended her reach to Staten Island, backing a GOP House candidate in a primary fight. Shushannah Walshe on the party infighting over the surprise endorsement.

You may not think of Sarah Palin when you think of New York City, but the former Alaska governor yesterday announced via Facebook that she was endorsing a New York City congressional candidate. Michael Grimm, an Iraq war veteran and former FBI agent, is trying to win a Republican primary and go after Democratic incumbent Representative Michael McMahon, a first term congressman for a district that represents all of Staten Island and a portion of Brooklyn. While Staten Island is the most conservative borough in New York and went for McCain-Palin in 2008, it’s not clear that her endorsement will have that much influence in the general election.

“It’s such a miscalculation,” Flanagan said. “At this point it looks like he has the primary pretty much locked up and he’ll win, but setting himself up for general election he’s got Palin around his neck.”

Like many Republican primary challengers this year, Grimm had been courting Palin’s support, but her Facebook post yesterday saying she was actually backing him came as a surprise to Grimm, who only found out about it when a staffer saw it on Palin’s page. “I’m humbled that she has chosen to support me of the thousands of candidates that she is inundated with. I am very, very proud and very humbled,” Grimm said in an interview with The Daily Beast.

The courtship for Palin’s support began when Grimm’s staff got in contact with hers and wrote a formal letter requesting her endorsement. They received her response just one day after John McCain also endorsed the candidate. But Grimm says he believes the endorsements were “mutually exclusive.”

But Palin's support might not impress Staten Island voters. Before November, Grimm has a primary race against Michael Allegretti, and it’s Allegretti who has the establishment’s backing. He’s the choice of the Staten Island GOP and endorsed by a majority of Republican politicians of the borough. The SIGOP had some tough words when the decision was announced, stressing that it will be the voters of the district that will pick who wins the primary, not Palin.

“These are just circus antics that are being put on by a certain campaign. This race and this primary is going to be decided on the issues, not the circus-like antics,” said a board member of the Staten Island GOP. “Sarah Palin is old news.”

Allegretti, too, suggested that it will be the people who cross the Verrazano Bridge who ultimately decide the primary winner, not someone from the outside.

“I find it amusing that my Republican opponent has had to go from Washington to Alaska to find an endorsement,” said Allegretti, who is clearly not star-struck by Palin’s blessing. "I want to give some advice to Sarah Palin and I doubt she's ever taken the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island, but you can't see Russia from the ferry, but you can see Brooklyn so I hope she gets a chance some time."

Palin’s team, unsurprisingly, disagrees, saying those candidates she’s endorsed—including Grimm—are going to barrel through the country come November. “People are claiming Sarah Palin is a polarizing figure,” says SarahPAC staffer Rebecca Mansour. “I laugh because we are in the process of electing numerous candidates just like Sarah Palin. We are about to elect dozens of Sarah Palins so polarize that.”

(McMahon’s camp had no comment on the endorsement.)

This disdain by the establishment for Grimm mirrors Palin’s own standing with the GOP in Alaska. The party didn’t back her in the primary in the Alaska governor’s race in 2006. It’s unclear if either Grimm or Palin know the extent of their shared histories though Mansour says, “She makes her decisions very carefully.”

“When you see the candidates [Palin chooses] they share Sarah Palin’s values. They all are commonsense constitutional conservatives,” Mansour added.

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For his part Grimm is hoping that Palin follows up on her endorsement by making an appearance on his behalf. But he doesn’t know if the Republican superstar, whom he calls “a real fighter” like himself, will come to the district to campaign with him, although he’s “very hopeful.”

“I think it goes without saying I would be thrilled to have her come and the residents of Staten Island and Brooklyn would give her a tremendously warm welcome.”

But Staten Island isn’t South Carolina. NY-13 watchers say Palin may receive a decidedly different welcome from the throngs of supporters who typically greet her in red states, and the endorsement could really hurt Grimm, especially in the general election. Grimm already has the backing of the Conservative Party in the district, so it’s unclear how many more Islanders on the right would now support him because of Palin. Meanwhile, in the general election he faces McMahon, a moderate Democrat with solid Republican-voter support especially after he voted against health care reform.

“She is a very polarizing figure,” a longtime political observer on Staten Island said. “This is yet another person who knows nothing about Staten Island, doesn’t know anything about the people who live here.”

Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island agrees, saying the Grimm camp “should have run away from (the endorsement.)”

“It’s such a miscalculation,” Flanagan said. “At this point it looks like he has the primary pretty much locked up and he’ll win, but setting himself up for general election he’s got Palin around his neck and McMahon spent the whole year running away from Obama and he’s in a much stronger position. It is primary tunnel vision.”

Indeed, not all Palin-backed candidates are sailing to victory. According to Public Policy Polling, Kelly Ayotte, one of Palin’s mama grizzlies running for Senate in New Hampshire, has seen her lead in the race decrease to three points and her negatives among moderates increase in the wake of Palin’s endorsement.

Although Allegretti has the big guns backing him in Island politics, Grimm does have the ultimate Staten Island kingmaker behind him, Guy Molinari. At 82 years old, he’s a five-time Congressman from the same district and served in Washington for 27 years and he is among those clearly delighted that the Republican phenomenon has come knocking on what Staten Islander’s call the forgotten borough. He says Palin has a “wide following on Staten Island” and that Grimm’s big name endorsements will only help judging by the immediate reaction, which he described as “phenomenal.”

Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.