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House Seat Suddenly in Play After Trump Backer's Indictment

FILE - Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., speaks with reporters in Washington, March 21, 2016.
FILE - Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., speaks with reporters in Washington, March 21, 2016.

New York's most conservative congressional district is unexpectedly in play as Republican incumbent Chris Collins, one of President Donald Trump's first supporters, fights insider trading charges while seeking re-election.

Republican leaders in a western New York district that Trump swept overwhelmingly in 2016 are counting on party and presidential loyalty, even if it means voting for someone that even they wanted off the ballot.

"This district is Trump country, and it will continue to be," said Erie County Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy. "It's a conservative Republican district, and I expect that when the dust settles on election night it will re-elect a conservative Republican to the seat."

Democratic challenger Nate McMurray is still the underdog but says his volunteers and donations have surged since Collins was charged in August, and his crowds have gone from handfuls to hundreds.

"It's like an avalanche that started out with a little snowball that's rolling downhill and getting bigger and bigger every day," McMurray, a Grand Island town supervisor, said recently to a roomful of supporters. They included Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, who dropped in to drum up enthusiasm in what had been a little-watched race.

Democratic congressional candidate Nate McMurray speaks to union members at United Steelworkers Local 2603 in Blasdell, N.Y., Oct. 11, 2018.
Democratic congressional candidate Nate McMurray speaks to union members at United Steelworkers Local 2603 in Blasdell, N.Y., Oct. 11, 2018.

Once considered a sure win for Republicans, Real Clear Politics now lists the race as a "toss-up," and the Cook Political Report in mid-September moved the seat from "likely Republican" to merely "lean Republican." McMurray said this week his internal polling showed the race to be a dead heat.

With Democrats forecast to make gains in the House, for some voters in the Republican-advantaged district, the decision will be more about keeping the challenger out than Collins in, analysts said.

"The old phrase of 'all politics is local,' the Tip O'Neill statement? These local races are not so local anymore," American University political science professor Jan Leighley said.

Accusations against Collins

Collins, with a reported net worth of $44 million one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is accused of illegally leaking confidential information about a biopharmaceutical company to his son and the father of his son's fiancee that allowed them to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock losses. The most serious charge carries a potential prison term of up to 20 years. If he wins and is later convicted and forced to resign, a special election would be held.

The 68-year-old Collins pleaded not guilty and initially vowed to continue his re-election campaign. He then agreed to be removed from the ballot "in the best interests of the constituents," only to reverse course again and announce he would stay on the ballot — even as party leaders who had spent weeks exploring legal maneuvers to remove him were preparing to announce a replacement.

"The stakes are too high to allow the radical left to take control of this seat in Congress," Collins said in a Sept. 19 statement.

Collins is one of two Republican congressmen running for re-election while under indictment. Rep. Duncan Hunter, of California, has pleaded not guilty to spending campaign funds for personal expenses. Hunter and Collins were the first two Republicans to endorse Trump in the Republican presidential primaries, and their indictments drew a critical Sept. 3 tweet from Trump aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Tweeted Trump: "Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time."

Since entering the race, Collins has limited his personal appearances largely to friendly gatherings like the Republican Women's Autumn Brunch and the Newstead GOP Sportsman Extravaganza. He declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

"A lot of folks just happy that I'm back in the race," he told WIVB this week. "They know what's at stake. ... Every seat matters. As you read the pundits now, it's going to be a very close election to see who is going to be in the majority of the House come next year."

The campaigns

Collins, a businessman who made his money by buying distressed businesses and turning them around, proudly carries an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and cites among his priorities never increasing entitlement programs, reforming the tax code and balancing the federal budget in 10 years.

He has been on the air with negative television ads, including one that was assailed by critics as racist. It showed McMurray speaking Korean as a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un floated in the background and captions falsely implied McMurray was talking about sending American jobs to Asia.

McMurray, a lawyer, studied the development of constitutional democracy in South Korea as a Fulbright scholar. His campaign has focused on health care for all, protecting Social Security, the environment and strengthening infrastructure. He said he supports gun rights but also universal background checks and a ban on bump stocks.

Out in the district, 23-year-old line cook Brett Schuman said the allegations against Collins were enough to sway him. "When there's anything happening, criminal or otherwise, I'm going to defer to the other party."

Retired engineer Don Lloyd said he liked McMurray's background and education but would still vote for Collins, if only to help Republicans keep control of the House and preserve Trump's agenda. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the chamber.

"Let's face it, the election isn't about Chris Collins — it's about Trump," said Lloyd, 70.

"So hold your nose, I guess."