We had just finished the interview and hung up the phone, when a few minutes later Max Rose called me back. It was a miserably rainy day on Staten Island, less than three weeks before the Democrat who flipped New York City’s most conservative congressional district two years ago was up for reelection, and Rose was about to head into a mosque to talk to voters before Friday prayers. He still had more to say though, and so he asked if I would be around when he got out.
Forty minutes later he called back again. “You were asking me about the playbook, but I’m sorry, the notion that there is some kind of playbook to all of this is frankly absurd,” he said. “I worry that if you quote me I am going to put a lot of political consultants out of business, but it’s just straight up hard work. It’s just straight up delivering for constituents. It is just straight up trying to earn people’s trust day in and day out.”
Rose likes to say that his district, which covers all of Staten Island and a small swath of southern Brooklyn, isn’t so much a Republican district or a Democratic district as it is “a patriotic district.” That’s hard to quantify, but it is very much a Republican district. Donald Trump won Staten Island in 2016 by 17 points. In 2013, Bill de Blasio beat his Republican opponent for mayor by 50 points citywide, but lost Staten Island. A Democrat hasn’t won reelection to Rose’s congressional seat since 1978.
In the 2018 wave election, Rose beat Republican Dan Donovan by six points in a race that almost no prognosticators thought he would win. This time however, Donald Trump will be on the top of the ticket. Pollsters and political operatives said that the Trump is likely to beat Biden in the district — if by a smaller margin than he beat Clinton in 2016 — so the question for Rose is how to convince some 10 percent or so of Trump voters to also cast the ballot for him and not Nicole Malliotakis, his Republican opponent. The struggling president appears to be dragging down House GOP candidates all over the country, but that doesn’t change the fact that partisan identity has become the central driver of political behavior, or that the number of voters who split their ticket has become vanishingly small.
If he can pull it off — and insiders in both parties say that he is a slight favorite — Rose, despite his objections, may in fact write a playbook for how Democrats in House, Senate, and governor’s races across the country can win in places that are inhospitable to their party. And considering the uneven nature of the country’s political geography, where Democrats have increasingly clear national majorities but are bunched together in coastal metropolitan areas, figuring out ways to win not just in purple districts, but in outright red ones like Rose’s, may be essential if they hope to maintain power.
To gain a shot at reelection, the 33-year-old Rose has barnstormed the district constantly since first winning in 2018. The mosque he dropped into last week had welcomed him several times before. His days home from D.C. are filled with a relentless glad-handing at little-league games, street fairs, and out in front of supermarkets.
“One of the worst pieces of political terminology is this notion of GOTV — get out the vote,” Rose says. “It’s this theory that some votes are guaranteed and you go home to your district in the 96 hours before the election and talk to your constituents. Get the hell out of here with that. I was going door-to-door 18 months ago. I have been going to supermarkets for months and months. This is not a new phase — this is business as usual.”
Rose is also banking on the fact that as much as politics has become a tribal identity, plenty of voters still loathe politics as usual with a pox-on-both-their-houses attitude. Rose has been helped in this by his choice of opponent. Malliotakis is not yet 40, but has served as a state assemblywoman for a decade and been a loyal Republican in Albany. Prior to being elected, she worked in public affairs for Con Edison (Rose says she was a lobbyist, a charge Malliotakis disputes), and before that, worked for the administration of Governor George Pataki. In 2016, she was the New York chair of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and ended up voting for Trump — though she later said she regretted it while running for mayor against de Blasio the following year. (She still lost by 38 points.) Earlier this month, Malliotakis appeared at a largely maskless Trump rally where, standing in front of a huge backdrop featuring the president’s scowling head superimposed on the body of an oily and muscle-bound biker, she told thousands of his supporters that Staten Island was “Trump country.”
Rose, meanwhile, at times seems to be running as much against the Democratic Party as he is against Malliotakis. In both of our conversations, he railed against “elite Democratic lawyers” who “live in Tribeca” and think that House Democrats should wait to pass an emergency stimulus bill until the next election in order to avoid giving Donald Trump a political win days before the election.
“Are we just becoming the party of elites who look at this as some kind of over-intellectualized parlor game? Because they don’t need help right now — so how do we stick a big middle finger in the faces of those who do?”
Rose also cut a six-second ad in which he looks straight in the camera and says simply, “Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City. That’s the whole ad.”
“It’s not a campaign statement, it’s simply a statement of fact,” Rose explains. “What matters to my constituents is what matters to me. I represent cops, firefighters, teachers whose very livelihoods depend on how well-run New York City is, whose livelihoods depend on whether or not the bus comes on time, and I want to tell them, ‘You are right, this mayor isn’t getting it done and it doesn’t matter what party I am in.’”
The ad isn’t just a way to inoculate Rose against any attempt by the GOP to tie him to an unpopular mayor, but also to show voters that he is willing to take on both parties, and an implicit criticism that his opponent is not.
Rose is also trying to carve out a distinct identity separate from his party label on sheer force of personality alone — something that is a lot easier for him than for other politicians. When he was a platoon leader in Afghanistan, he was injured when the vehicle he was traveling in ran over an IED in Kandahar Province, and earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service. The bald, foul-mouthed, five-and-a-half-foot Army veteran practically bursts with outer-borough energy. His campaign team figured the best way to get voters to see past his party label was to put that on display. In addition to the brief, brutal de Blasio spot, Rose has run ads in which he blasts both the mayor and the president, telling the camera, “I don’t give a damn about polls, parties, or politics.” He has also attacked his fellow freshman House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for perpetuating a “limousine liberal trope that the military is filled with a bunch of idiots”; gone on an all-out war against Knicks owner James Dolan for supporting his opponent; and, in another viral video, read his meanest Twitter mentions aloud.
“Andrew Beck says, ‘Max Rose is trash tho,’” Rose reads from an iPad in his campaign office. Pausing a beat, Rose looks at the camera and replies, “Fuck you, Andrew.”
“It’s about putting him out there, forming a connection with voters, and getting them to see him,” said one senior adviser to the campaign. “This is who Max is. People don’t want cardboard, vanilla politicians. His opponent is a typical politician, and you take one look at that video and you know Max is anything but a typical politician.”