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Rep. Max Rose is fighting for his life in a nasty House race

Trump's backing the Republican challenger could be a big factor in whether the freshman Democrat can hang on in a conservative district.
Image: Max Rose
Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., outside his office on Staten Island this month.Kathy Willens / AP

One of the most hotly contested House races in the country seems more like a street fight than a campaign.

It's being duked out on Staten Island and in a small sliver of south Brooklyn, where freshman Democratic Rep. Max Rose and GOP state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis are fighting for control of New York City's lone swing congressional district.

The ads wars — featuring in-your-face tough talk and the occasional f-bomb — are noteworthy for the level of vitriol and nastiness on both sides.

"Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City — that's the whole ad," Rose scathes in a six-second spot, targeting a mayor who is unpopular in a district that is the most conservative in the heavily Democratic city.

Hostility toward progressive NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran briefly for president, has taken center stage in the district — home to a large number of first responders and police and law enforcement officers who largely voted against de Blasio in 2017.

"Bill de Blasio's failed leadership, it was driving New York City into the gutter," Rose said in an interview with NBC News, blasting the mayor's handling of the pandemic before criticizing Republicans for standing against robust pandemic relief to state and local governments.

Rose, 33, who was elected in 2018 and is only the second Democrat to represent the district in the past 30 years, is a veteran who served in Afghanistan. Malliotakis, the only Republican woman representing New York City, has served in the state Legislature since 2010. While she handily lost her 2017 bid to unseat de Blasio, she won roughly 70 percent of the vote within New York's 11th Congressional District.

The Cook Political Report rates the House race as one of 25 toss-ups nationally, but there has been no independent public polling.

Millions of dollars have poured into the bout. Rose raised about $6 million through the end of June, according to Federal Election Commission, while Malliotakis has collected about $3 million through September.

As of Monday, the candidates and groups backing them spent more than $9 million on TV and radio ads in the district, with about 75 percent of that spending for Rose, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

Many of those ads have a distinct outer-borough, in-your-face flavor to them. Malliotakis and groups supporting her brand Rose as "radically liberal" and "a f---ing liar" who supports defunding police (Rose said he does not).

Rose and groups backing the Democrat label Malliotakis a lying "fraud," even starting a petition to have her named the global ambassador for flip-flops. In an interview with NBC News, she called the ads "disgusting and dishonest."

Rose has sought to promote his independent streak, even saying in one ad that he "stood with President Trump when Democrats attacked him for killing an Iranian terrorist."

"Because when you kill American soldiers, we kill you," he said.

The swing district was carried by then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Two years later, Rose beat the GOP incumbent, Dan Donovan, by about 6 points.

"What we are talking about, just as we spoke about in 2018, is how can we drain the swamp and put government back on the side of working people," Rose said. "This time, though, the only difference is that now we have produced results as a member of Congress."

Rose said that how well Trump performs in the district on Nov. 3 has "zero relationship" to how he will fare against Malliotakis, whom he called a "rubber-stamp" for Republicans.

"This is not a Trump district just as much as it's not a Rose district," he said. "What it is, it's a patriotic district that's tired of the BS."

Endorsed by Trump in her 2020 race, Malliotakis had said in 2017 that she regretted voting for him — which she says came out of frustration of being asked repeatedly about her vote. She said she feels differently now, adding that "at the time, he didn't even have most of his Cabinet sworn in yet."

"The president has done great work on behalf of our veteran community," she said. "He had created millions of jobs, brought our unemployment level to record numbers for minorities, for women across the board. And also renegotiating trade deals that benefit our country like USMCA. Of course, I support the president. We're a ticket, he endorses me, and I support him as well."

Meanwhile, the mayor's office has pushed back on Rose's characterization of de Blasio as the worst in New York's history, pointing to one office holder who supported the Confederacy.

"Max Rose is trying to out-Republican a Trump Republican," said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and former de Blasio aide. "It's cringe-y to watch, but that's his play."

Republicans called Rose's anti-de Blasio effort desperate.

Jessica Proud, a New York GOP strategist, said the ad was the result of Rose being "caught between a rock and a hard place on a lot of issues — especially the criminal justice stuff."

Malliotakis, who is endorsed by a dozen law enforcement entities, said that a vote for Rose is a vote to keep Democrats in control of the House and that "as much as Max tries to distance himself from Mayor de Blasio, it's clear that he supports a lot of same policies."

Neal Kwatra, a Democratic strategist in New York, said Rose "smartly" played up anti-de Blasio sentiment, building "a very identifiable anti-de Blasio brand as a part of who he is, which is a huge asset in a district like that, frankly."

Kwatra said Rose is rivaled only by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., among young, up-and-coming New York politicians, adding that Rose reminded him a lot of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

"He's very visceral and, frankly, New Yorkers, especially in their politicians, they appreciate that," Kwatra said.

This month Rose read mentions on his Twitter account, including from a user named Andrew who said, "Max Rose is trash, though."

"F--- you, Andrew," Rose responded.