Rep. Chris Collins has not formally declared that he’ll run again, saying only that he’ll make a decision later this year, but he has been actively raising funds | AP Photo
ALBANY — A potentially bitter conflict is brewing among Republicans in New York’s reddest congressional district, where incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Collins’ indictment on insider trading charges and pending trial on corruption charges has the party worried about what ought to be a shoo-in victory next year.
With his case awaiting trial, a cohort of Republican Party operatives fear there will be no miracle victory next year like Collins pulled off shortly after being charged in 2018. In hopes of retaining the seat and seeing an opening, three Republicans already have announced plans to run regardless of the four-term incumbent’s political future in New York’s 27th district, and more may be on the way.Story Continued Below
The Western New York district ought to be a slam dunk for any Republican. President Donald Trump carried the district by 25 points in 2016, and Collins won reelection that year with more than 67 percent of the vote. But Collins was indicted just a few months before Election Day 2018, and he wound up beating a relative unknown, Democrat Nate McMurray, for the safe Republican seat by just over 1,000 votes. He hasn’t declared whether he will run for reelection.
That result and the continued shadow cast over Collins’ integrity have convinced some local Republicans they need to look elsewhere if they wish to retain the seat. Collins, meanwhile, hasn’t signaled he’s ready to cede. A House Ethics Committee inquiry into Collins’ actions is open until the conclusion of his federal district court trial, slated for February 2020 in New York City.
“The only way this district is lost is if Chris Collins is on the ballot,” said state Sen. Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo), the first to declare his bid against Collins in May.
Jacobs, a former New York secretary of state from Western New York’s wealthiest family (his uncle is worth more than $4 billion and owns the Boston Bruins), is touting his political and business experience. And Jacobs is embracing the Trump agenda, just as Collins has. The key difference, he says, is that Collins is now hamstrung by his legal problems, rendering him ineffective.Jacobs began aggressively fundraising following his announcement, and his campaign now sits on a healthy $747,878, according to July filings.
“I believe Chris Collins has done some good things for this district, but don’t believe he can represent this district under federal indictment,” Jacobs told POLITICO. “I think the district can use somebody who can use all the tools, especially the ability to serve on committees.”
Collins, who has maintained his innocence, was stripped of his committee assignments after the indictment was announced last August. He has not formally declared that he’ll run again, saying only that he’ll make a decision later this year, but he has been actively raising funds, including lending $500,000 of his own money to his campaign mid-June. That’s left him with $665,243 in campaign cash.
Unlike his Iowa colleague Rep. Steve King, whose inflammatory comments have crippled his reputation and left him without committee assignments, fundraising will not be the issue that sinks Collins, party leaders say.
“While Congressman Collins will decide on re-election over the next few months, his effectiveness cannot be questioned,” his spokesperson Jennifer Brown said by email. “He continues to be one of President Trump’s best supporters, and remains effective in representing his constituents and working closely with the White House. … Should Mr. Collins decide to run he has said over and over that his campaign will have the necessary funds to share its message with voters.”
Some have suggested he’ll use the campaign build-up as a negotiating chip with prosecutors, an accusation he recently refuted in a rare press event.
Regardless, a prevailing opinion among some state party leaders and other candidates is that Collins will drop out by the end of the year, creating a wide open spot for a surefire Republican victory.
“I personally don’t ultimately think he’ll be a candidate for reelection, and there’s a variety of very qualified candidates, and some still waiting in the wings to get into the race,” said state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy.
The two other declared candidates are attorney and former judge Beth Parlato, a Fox News contributor, and state Sen. Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda).
“I don’t have anything negative to say about him except that it’s a very negative situation that he’s in,” Parlato said of Collins. Parlato, who declared in late July, is painting herself as a political outsider who can add her voice to the small band of 13 Republican women in Congress. “For me, waiting to jump in this race until he makes his decision is really too late.”
Ortt is considered to have a strong base in Niagara County, the district’s second largest population center, but said he needs to focus on getting his name out to the rest of the massive district that includes 105 towns spread through all of Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming and Livingston counties, as well as portions of Erie, Monroe, Niagara and Ontario counties.
“It’s a district where there are a lot more gun clubs than country clubs,” said Ortt, an Army veteran who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan and announced his candidacy in mid-August. “I know those voters, and I know the issues that they’re concerned about. They want someone who’s going to go in there, defend the president’s agenda and not be afraid to take on a fight.”
Ortt has had his own legal issues — in 2017 then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accused him of felony election law violations, but the case was tossed by an Albany County judge.
Another local GOP official said he spoke to two other interested candidates just this month. Additional names high on the possible succession list include Republican Erie County comptroller Stefan Mychajliw Jr., state Assemblyman Stephen Hawley (R-Batavia) and Medal of Honor recipient David Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran who ran against Collins in 2012, when the incumbent won his first term.
“Obviously you don’t want to wait too long if you are interested and something happens,” said Niagara County Republican Committee Chairman Richard Andres. “It was a very, very strange situation last year, and this will be just as interesting one to watch.”
While there’s no shortage of candidates eager to fill Collins’ seat, it’s not a given that he is too weak to survive. After all, he did manage to win last year even though his indictment was announced just three months before Election Day. Independent polling in the district from earlier this month showed 60 percent of Republican primary voters still view Collins favorably. Next year Trump’s name will be at the top of the ballot — a boon for the party in a district where 81 percent of Republicans who have recently voted in a primary or presidential election said they viewed Trump favorably, according to the poll from Tel Opinion Research.
“This will be a year where polarization of country will probably hold most Republicans in line,” said James Campbell, a University at Buffalo professor who specializes in political campaigns. “I think it would take an unusually strong Democrat and an unusually divisive nomination battle to put us in the toss-up category.”
Republicans didn’t have much time to triage the news of Collins’ indictment in 2018, Campbell said, so it makes sense that primary candidates are coming out strong and local party leaders are receptive to Collins’ challengers.
But if the race widens too much, it could play against those seeking his replacement. And that’s exactly what McMurray, the Democrat who nearly took Collins in 2018, is hoping for in round two, he said.
McMurray, a town supervisor who announced in August that he’ll run again, doesn’t buy the concept that the close margin in 2018 was an outlier due to the year’s Democratic wave election and the fresh nature of Collins’ charges.
He said he believes there are moderate Republicans in the district who have grown weary of both Trump and Collins, but that the current challengers look “fake” and “opportunistic” because they’re taking advantage of Collins’ precarious position.
“Every single person in this district knows who I am now,” McMurray said. “They know I’m the guy who stood up to Chris Collins first.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee isn’t getting involved in the primary, but is not concerned about a repeat performance from McMurray, NRCC spokesperson Michael McAdams said.
“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Nate McMurray can win with President Trump at the top of the ticket in a district he won by more than 24 points,” McAdams said by email.
McMurray, whose $24,021 in reported cash is dwarfed by Republican candidates’ funds, said he’s not running his campaign out of the back of his car this time — “We’re better than we were a year ago” — and believes he will have a stronger foundation of support from local and national Democrats who took note of his underdog near-victory in 2018.
The way he sees it, a crowded Republican field can only help.
“The primary’s not ‘til June next year and they’re going to rip each other apart before then,” McMurray said.