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Grimm race: What if Democrats can't oust GOP incumbent facing 20 indictments?

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Bebeto Matthews/AP

(Read caption) GOP Rep. Michael Grimm (r.) leaves a candidates forum after his first debate with Democratic challenger Domenic Recchia on Oct. 1, 2014, at the Fort Hamilton Senior Citizen Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Recchia raised the issue of Grimm’s federal indictment on 20 counts, including tax evasion by allegedly hiding more than $1 million in sales and wages while running a small Manhattan restaurant. Grimm dismissed the criticism as political mudslinging.

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Despite facing 20 federal indictments, Rep. Michael Grimm (R) of New York is still a narrow favorite to retain his seat in New York's 11th District – an indicator of just how tough next month's election could be for House Democrats. 

In a midterm election season defined by intense focus on a handful of tight races, the contest for Congressman Grimm's seat looked like a layup for Democrats – one of the few they could count on in their bid to put a dent in expected GOP gains in 2014 and take back the House in 2016.

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Instead, they've had to funnel more than $1 million into the campaign of Democratic challenger Domenic Recchia, even though the embattled GOP incumbent has been largely abandoned by Republican campaign committees and fundraisers.

A few months ago Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, looked dead in the water. News of a federal investigation into Grimm's campaign finances surfaced in January. After being surprised by a question about it in a live TV interview, the congressman threaten to throw the reporter off a balcony and "break [him] in half. Like a boy," while the camera was still rolling. In April, Grimm was indicted on federal charges that he hired undocumented immigrants at a Manhattan health-food restaurant he used to own, then lied about it to federal investigators. In all, Grimm faces 20 charges, including wire fraud, filing false tax returns, hiring undocumented workers, and perjury.

Moreover, Recchia has significantly out-paced Grimm in campaign funding, with Democrats recently doubling down on one of the few tight races they think they can win this election. The Democratic campaign committee has spent $1.3 million on cable television ads since Aug. 12. 

The Republican campaign committee appears to have mostly given up on Grimm, however, but help from outside funders, including $100,000 from moderate Republican super PAC Defending Main Street, has kept the Republican in the race.

The latest polls show Grimm with a narrow lead in a district that comprises all of Staten Island – a Republican stronghold in an iconic liberal city – and a sliver of southern Brooklyn. The main reason appears to be that, despite Grimm's personal troubles and his own stronger fundraising effort, Mr. Recchia has repeatedly shot himself in the foot.

Grimm is also a seasoned and skilled politician. He has framed Recchia's focus on his legal travails as a way to distract from more important national issues. He also uses his deep Staten Island roots against Recchia, a former New York City councilman from Brooklyn.

"National Democrats have spent millions upon millions of dollars to make it about anything but the issues," Grimm told a crowd at a recent event in Staten Island, according to The New York Times. When asked about his balcony-tossing tiff with a journalist at a debate in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, Grimm replied, "As a Staten Islander, sometimes I get my Italian up," the Times reported.

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Recchia, meanwhile, has been unable to take advantage of Grimm's woes, because he was making so many missteps of his own. To back up his own claims to "great knowledge" of foreign policy, he noted a student-exchange program with Japan he once ran in Grimm's district, as well as his visits to Italy, Israel and "many, many countries." When he voiced opposition to the proposed TPP trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently being negotiated between the US, Australia, and Asian and South American countries – he appeared at a loss to explain what the letters TPP stood for. 

The series of campaign missteps eventually provoked a skewering on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" earlier this week.

Perhaps the biggest irony in an increasingly combative and toxic race is that Grimm may wind up winning the race, only to leverage his victory to bargain for a lesser sentence. Grimm's trial is set for December, a month after the election, and politicians facing federal prosecution in the past have offered their resignation in exchange for lighter sentences.

Noting such a possibility, Grimm tells voters that they should stick with him, if only so they can elect someone else in a future special election, should he resign – someone, at least, who isn't Recchia. Indeed, Republicans have already begun floating names for potential special-election candidates in 2015, according to The Staten Island Advance.

"If things don't go my way ... and I had to step down in January, then there will be a special election, and at least the people of Staten Island and southern Brooklyn can then have qualified candidates to choose from," Grimm told radio host Geraldo Rivera this month.