New York Rep. Chris Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. His district—which includes much of the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs, and is one of the most conservative in the state—favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 24 points. Collins won reelection by 34 points. But this year, he faces the greatest political challenge of his life. And more than just his seat on Capitol Hill is at stake.
In June 2017, while attending an event at the White House, Collins got a call informing him that Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech company, had received bad news about a drug trial. He immediately called his son, Cameron, and told him to sell their shares—days before this confidential information would be made public. On August 8, 2018, the FBI arrested Collins and his son for insider trading and lying to federal agents. Federal prosecutors said that Collins, who was on Innate’s board of directors and held roughly 16 percent of its stock, had avoided more than $700,000 in losses by selling before the bad news went public. Three days after pleading not guilty, Collins said he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.
A month later, he reversed course. Collins, who is free on bail, claimed that the protracted legal battle to get another Republican on the ballot so late in the process would make his seat vulnerable to Democrats. New York state has complex election laws, and the Democrats planned to sue if he maneuvered his way out of the race. Collins seemed to be betting that voters’ partisan loyalty would outweigh his serious legal and ethical baggage. He has run on a platform to “support President Trump no matter what,” emphasizing the need to “keep the seat Republican.”
But the rest of the GOP finds Collins’s own argument disingenuous. Erie County Republican Chair Nicholas Langworthy told the Buffalo News last week that Collins resumed his campaign not because of legal uncertainties or to keep the district red, but to aid his own legal defense. “I disagree with the congressman’s assessment,” he said, referring to Collins’s insistence that his decision to run again was purely political. In other words, Langworthy was saying, Collins wants to stay in Congress so he can use his seat as a chip in a plea bargain to get a lesser sentence.
Collins, 68, is under indictment for 11 felony charges and faces more than 100 years in jail. Mother Jones recently labelled his opponent, Nate McMurray, the “luckiest Democrat in the world.” McMurray, a 43-year-old town supervisor from Niagara County, is down just three points according to recent polling. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee just added him to its “Red to Blue” list of priority races.
McMurray has been running a vigorous campaign since January, when he cited the House Ethics Committee’s investigation into Collins’s malfeasance. “I knew about the Office of Congressional Ethics findings,” McMurray said in an interview last week at his campaign headquarters. “That was part of why I made my decision. I thought, look, someone’s got to stand up to him.”
McMurray’s strategy is to distance himself from the Democratic establishment and downplay his disagreements with Trump. One of his most often repeated campaign promises is to vote against Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House. “Make America Great Again is a powerful slogan,” McMurray told me. “The slogan says, look, I see my hometown: we’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost opportunity, these closed store fronts. We want opportunity. And I don’t even know what the Democratic message is.”
This strategy makes obvious sense in a district where Trump is highly popular. But McMurray is also trying to emphasize the distance between Trump and Collins. “Trump’s Justice Department indicted Collins,” he said. “Trump’s Republican Party removed Collins from all his committees. He is a pariah in his own party.” That may be why, when Steve Bannon stumped for Collins two weeks ago, Collins himself was conspicuously absent.
McMurray is also making the case that Collins couldn’t serve in Congress under the circumstances, when he will be more devoted to his legal defense than to advancing legislation. “He’s not going to be a part-time congressman, he’ll be a no-time congressman,” McMurray said. “He knows he needs this as a bargaining chip in is his legal proceedings and he thinks he can exploit the people of this region to get elected.”
Collins has denied this accusation. But in an interview with Robert McCarthy, a Buffalo News political reporter, Collins acknowledged that his lawyers had advised him that he could face more legal jeopardy, including from the potential civil lawsuit, if he dropped out of the race. “He says that right in there,” McCarthy told me, referring to a front-page story in October 28’s paper. The New York state Republican party, he added, “was pretty furious with Collins because they felt they had a path to legally withstand any challenge” to get him off the ballot.
Since reviving his reelection bid, Collins has, for the most part, kept quiet. He started doing interviews last week with local press but has refused to debate McMurray. Jacob Neiheisel, a politics professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said this was a sign of both legal and political weakness.
“I’m sure counsel is telling him not to show up to a place where you know he’s going to get questions about his case,” he told me. “Then you’re stuck in a position where you go: ‘I’m committed to exonerating myself. I will ultimately be found innocent of these charges. But that’s all I can say.’ And that last part is probably what’s going to make people think, gosh, you know, this is not a good idea to vote for this guy.”
Like many embattled Republicans in Trump-friendly districts, Collins is attempting to nationalize the race. He has tried to frame a vote for McMurray as a vote against the president or against Republican control of the House. In a decidedly Rust Belt stretch of upstate New York, that might work. New York’s 27th District has 40,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
But the severity of the charges against Collins are turning off some voters. I recently met Robert Perry, a 62-year-old retired steelworker, at the Bar Bill Tavern in East Aurora, New York. It’s the kind of bar you might expect to find in this part of the country. It has oak wood tables, neon lights on the walls, and a Cheers-y kind of feel: where everyone knows your name. In fact, the bar actually has a “mug club” in which regular patrons, like Perry, get their names painted on them.
Wearing a jean jacket with a checkered shirt, Perry told me he didn’t vote for Trump but liked him now. His approval of the president, however, won’t translate into a vote for Collins. “I will definitely vote for McMurray, because I do not like Chris Collins,” he said, adding that he thought Collins’s behavior, including his evasiveness on the campaign trail, reeked of guilt. “Most politicians that want to get elected that have shit on them will avoid debates and all publicity and let their commercials do their chores.”
But Perry, a registered Democrat who said he lost faith in the party once his job went overseas after the implementation of NAFTA, isn’t the kind of voter who could fundamentally tip this election. Instead, if McMurray wins, it will be because enough committed Republicans decide to vote for him—or at least not vote for Collins.
I spoke to one person at Bar Bill who fits this mold. A 57-year-old electrical engineer, who declined to give his name, told me he was a registered Republican who wouldn’t vote for a Democrat. But he’s not sure he can pull the lever for Collins. “That’s a little hard. If he’s a crook, no. I’d probably not vote. I’ll decide when I get there.” There was about a week until the election. I asked him what more he needed to know. “I really don’t feel like I’m getting the true story—from the media or from him. There’s something going on there. That kind of crime is pretty bad, but I don’t see any benefit to vote for a Democrat, ever.”
But the engineer may also be among another category of voters who propelled Trump to his unlikely ascension in 2016—the kind who are too embarrassed to say they’ll vote for someone like Collins, but who ultimately do. In the most recent Siena College poll, 10 percent of respondents were undecided. As Neiheisel said, undecided can mean two things in this context: either these voters really don’t know who they will vote for, or they have an unpopular opinion that they don’t want to share with a stranger. “I think that most of those ‘don’t knows’ will break for Collins,” he told me.
The Collins-McMurray race will be an important data point in the question of the extent to which partisan loyalty trumps all other considerations in 2018. Collins is deeply unpopular. He is facing serious criminal charges. His own party has disowned him and alleges that he is hijacking this race so that he can spend fewer years behind bars. But he’s a Republican, and in New York’s 27th, that could be enough.