Behind the scenes of one of the midterms’ biggest upsets — Democrat Max Rose’s defeat of incumbent Republican Dan Donovan on Staten Island

Max Rose. Chris Jones/Business Insider
  • Congressional candidate Max Rose, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Dan Donovan in a district that includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn.
  • Staten Island is known as New York City’s reddest borough and went to Donald Trump in 2016.
  • Take a look behind the scenes of his election night party.

When I met Garth Powell, he was standing outside a polling site in Staten Island with a sign that simply said, “MAX ROSE FOR CONGRESS.”

Garth Powell, another volunteer for Rose’s campaign in Staten Island, waits near a polling site with pamphlets. Chris Jones/Business Insider

He’d taken 10 days off work to canvas for Rose, going door to door for days to introduce Staten Islanders and South Brooklyn residents to the candidate.

Like many of the volunteers for Rose who I met on November 6, he’d had a handful of hours of sleep the night before, but he was quick to smile and greet all who walked past him. He’d been volunteering since August for Rose, but even he was nervous.

When asked how he felt about Rose’s chances, he glanced up at the rain and shrugged before turning to me. “It’s Staten Island,” he offered in response, likely referring to the fact that for that Staten Island is considered one of the strongest bases of Republican support in New York City.

Dan Donovan, the Republican incumbent for New York’s 11th District (which encompasses all of Staten Island and the southern tip of Brooklyn) won the last congressional election by 53,000 votes.

Dan Donovan, the former Republican congressman for New York’s 11th District, carries his daughter after voting in Staten Island. Chris Jones/Business Insider

The district voted heavily in favour of Donald Trump in 2016.

Many of the campaign volunteers I spoke with during the day shared a similar sense of clouded optimism.

A volunteer for Rose’s campaign waits in heavy rain to speak with potential voters a block down from a polling site. Chris Jones/Business Insider

But neither Staten Island’s Republican legacy nor heavy rain and wind deterred the hundreds of volunteers who knocked on an estimated 500,000 doors leading up to the midterm election.

At polling sites across Staten Island and South Brooklyn, Rose supporters could be seen standing just outside the mandatory 100-foot no-electioneering zone.

A volunteer for Rose’s congressional campaign waits down the block from a polling site with pamphlets to speak to potential voters in Staten Island. Chris Jones/Business Insider

They were handing out pamphlets, discussing Rose’s platforms, and thanking those leaving the polling sites for voting, regardless of their choice.

When a Staten Island resident walked past two Rose volunteers at PS 16, the volunteers asked her to consider Rose. “I’m on the other team,” the woman responded. The volunteers lit up and told her that was fine, “and thank you for voting either way!”

Rose and his wife arrived at PS 16 around 9 a.m. to vote.

Rose finishes filling out his ballot. Chris Jones/Business Insider

He greeted campaign volunteers and Staten Island locals with a quick hand clasp, brief hug, and a few moments of conversation. Inside the polling site, Rose spoke quietly with his wife and one of his campaign managers, with a tight-lipped but determined expression. As he walked away from the polling booth, he cracked a joke for reporters: “Well, we’ve got at least one vote now.”

By 10 a.m., the pouring rain had sent many Staten Islanders indoors, but Rose’s volunteers were out in numbers.

Volunteers for Rose’s campaign head out into the rain to canvass neighbourhoods and stand near polling sites. Chris Jones/Business Insider

Many had been canvassing for days, if not weeks or months. I met volunteers who’d taken months off of their jobs to work for the campaign, and some who’d only joined a few days prior.

Many were drawn to Rose for the opportunity to help him achieve what many considered impossible: flipping the reddest district in New York City. Jack Donohue, a member of Rose’s campaign, admitted that while he disagreed with a few aspects of Rose’s platform, this election was bigger than that. According to Donohue, “Max Rose is the blueprint for Democrats across the country,” who want to flip historically Republican districts.

As the sun set, volunteers trickled back to Rose’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters for a few moments of warmth and to dry off after manning their posts since 8 a.m. Many were still nervous about Rose’s chances of winning, and some described being harassed by GOP representatives at polling sites for being too close. A volunteer manager handed out new assignments, sending most to polling sites and others to keep knocking on doors as 9 p.m. (when voting stops in New York) loomed closer.

C.K., a long time member of Rose’s campaign, danced across the street from South Brooklyn’s PS 186 until the polling site closed.

C.K., a Rose volunteer, dances in the rain a block away from a polling site. Chris Jones/Business Insider

With his headphones in and a playlist that alternated between EDM hits and salsa music, he kept his sign spinning and the dance moves flowing.

At Rose’s viewing party, the evening began quietly.

Supporters of Charles Fall, a state assembly candidate, arrive at Max Rose’s viewing party. Chris Jones/Business Insider

A few dozen supporters and staff mingled in the large room filled with balloons, nursing their drinks as they frantically scanned the local TV election coverage and their phones.

At Rose’s viewing party in Staten Island, volunteers and supporters of Rose’s campaign check for news updates on their phones and on TV screens. Chris Jones/Business Insider

One volunteer admitted that the election analytics he was watching suggested Rose would lose. Many of the attendees seemed resigned to a close loss for Rose.

By 10 p.m., the room was filled to the brim with supporters and campaign staff, and suddenly a cheer erupted from the room: with 50% of the votes tallied, the race was neck and neck, with both candidates at 49.7%.

Supporters of Charles Fall, state assembly candidate, celebrate at Rose’s viewing party. Chris Jones/Business Insider

That energy never dissipated, and as more and more results poured in, the energy became frantic.

Exhausted volunteers hugged and shouted, while some tried to stay sceptical, guarding themselves against disappointment.

Rose supporters nervously watch election results at Rose’s viewing party. Chris Jones/Business Insider

At 10:13, Dan Donovan’s face flashed onto the TV screens.

The crowd hushed before erupting into cheers: Donovan was conceding to Max Rose.

Jack Donohue, a member of Rose’s campaign, reacts to the announcement that Dan Donovan conceded the race. Chris Jones/Business Insider

Volunteers hugged and cried, and campaign organisers hugged volunteers, telling them over and over that, “You did this! This is your win!”

Members of Rose’s campaign team react to the election win. Chris Jones/Business Insider

When Rose walked down to the main room, the crowd somehow managed to become even louder.

Rose speaks to supporters and campaign staff after Donovan’s concession. Chris Jones/Business Insider

He slowly made his way to the podium, stopping to greet and speak with everyone who stretched out their hand.

Once he reached the microphone, the crowd quieted, and Rose spoke. He was only able to get out, “Tonight we won!” before another cheer ran through the room. Rose put his hands up in a quieting gesture, and the crowd settled again. Rose described a phone call from Dan Donovan he’d just had, and told his supporters that Donovan had an important message, one that Rose supported as well; though they’d run a heated election race, they were not enemies, and Democrats and Republicans needed to work together to serve the 11th District.

Rose paused a moment, then looked out across a room full of people who’d sacrificed months of their lives and money out of their own pockets to help him win this election.

With a smile he shouted, “Tonight, we party, but tomorrow we get to work!”

A Rose supporter picks up a broken beer bottle at the viewing party. Chris Jones/Business Insider