WASHINGTON — Eager to attract more minority voters, some Republicans are worried that their party's near-certain candidate for a House seat in New York City could become the latest drag on GOP diversity efforts.
Daniel Donovan seems sure to become the Republican nominee in a special election in the 11th Congressional District, which covers Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn. Donovan, the district attorney for Staten Island the past 11 years and a borough native, would be the favorite to win in the conservative-leaning district.
He's also the prosecutor who presented evidence to the grand jury that decided against charging a white police officer in last July's chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black suspect. That episode, and the backlash it helped fuel among blacks and others, has stirred concerns among Republicans focused on the 2016 elections that Donovan's candidacy will help Democrats cast the GOP as unfriendly to minorities.
Donovan may be a strong local candidate, "but on a national scale, he'd bring lots of turbulence around racial politics that's unneeded for Republican presidential candidates," said Ron Bonjean, who has advised congressional GOP leaders.
The Garner case and last August's fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer enraged minority communities and sparked national debates over social justice and police tactics. The Ferguson officer was not charged.
Donovan's candidacy follows revelations that No. 3 House GOP leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, addressed a white supremacy group in 2002 when he was in the state Legislature. Scalise has apologized and been backed by party leaders, but that disclosure raised concerns that Republicans were undermining their outreach to minorities.
"Realistically, Republicans aren't going to get much of a black vote anyway. But they can get a lot of Hispanic and Asian and ethnic voters, and these things don't help on those lines," said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who once headed House GOP election efforts and remains influential in party circles.
In an interview, Donovan, 58, said his office's relationship with Staten Island's minorities is "extraordinary." He said Democrats will decide whether to use his candidacy to make race a campaign issue. "I'd hate to see it get down to that stuff," he said.
Donovan said his job in the Garner case was to give evidence to the grand jury, not steer it to a conclusion. Asked his view of the grand jury's failure to charge the police officer, he said, "I respect it."
The Staten Island seat was vacated when Republican Michael Grimm resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion. In New York special elections, nominees are picked by party leaders. Donovan has been endorsed by the Staten Island GOP. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to schedule the election. John Gulino, the Staten Island Democratic chairman, said he will pick a candidate this month.
Some Republicans say Donovan's candidacy won't hurt them nationally because Democrats were going to portray the GOP as unfriendly to minorities anyway.
"They always have and will continue to do exactly that," said former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., another past chief of House Republican political operations.
Even so, Donovan's role in the Garner case has caught the attention of national Republicans. Donovan said that in a telephone call this month, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the House GOP's campaign organization — asked about it.
Donovan said he responded, "I certainly didn't think it was going to be an issue here."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who heads the campaign committee and initiated that call, declined to detail the conversation and said he routinely interviews candidates. He praised Donovan and cautioned Democrats about raising racial issues.
"I'd hope they won't just play a race card for the sake of just trying to win seats," he said. "That isn't what brings America together."
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats would focus their campaign on the economic squeeze on the middle class.
But in a swipe, he added, "I can tell you that our candidate's not going to have a problem understanding who David Duke is."
That was a reference to the group Scalise addressed, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise has said he didn't always know details about groups to whom he spoke.
Nine in 10 blacks and 7 in 10 Hispanics and Asians voted for President Barack Obama over GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, according to exit polls of voters. In another potential hurdle to winning Hispanic support, the GOP-run House last week passed legislation making it easier to deport millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.