Chris Collins took a giant step toward a remarkable political comeback Tuesday with an overwhelming victory in the Republican primary for the new 27th Congressional District.
The former Erie County executive, whose political obituary was written by most observers less than eight months ago after he lost his bid for a second term, turned back a committed challenge from Iraq War veteran David Bellavia. Collins was leading by a margin of 60 to 40 percent with more than 92 percent of the district reporting.
He will now appear on the GOP and Conservative lines in November as he launches a challenge to incumbent Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, in a contest expected to command millions of dollars in political funds and national attention as well.
And in another contest, this one on the Democratic side, Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa was winning the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Tom Reed in the new 23rd District based on strong showings in Chautauqua and Chemung counties. With 90 percent of districts reporting partial results from 10 of the 11 counties in the district, he was leading with 56 percent, Ithaca lawyer Leslie Danks Burke had 37 percent, and Owego lawyer and educator Melissa Dobson had 7 percent.
But there was no question that Collins emerged as one of the big primary winners in all of New York state. He rode the strength of his home county of Erie, winning by a whopping 74 to 26 percent with 97 percent of election districts reporting — or 5,889 to 2,094 votes. Collins also was leading in Niagara County by a whopping 69 to 31 percent tally, or 1,898 to 861 votes.
Election officials in Erie County pegged turnout at a mere 12 percent in the 27th District.
But Bellavia registered stronger totals in outlying counties where he had received significant organizational support all along. He beat Collins in Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario and Orleans counties, according to unofficial results from the websites of those counties' boards of election.
No results were available from Wyoming County.
Bellavia's strong showing in the smaller counties was overwhelmed by the bigger counties where Collins has been better known — dating to his first run for Congress — an unsuccessful effort against then-Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, in 1998.
At Bellavia headquarters at the Clarion Hotel in Batavia, friends, family and supporters gathered around the television, watching results and chatting. As the results poured in, the crowd became quieter, with many taking their seats and falling silent.
When the results became clear, Bellavia's family took the stage with him shortly before 10:30 p.m. to a standing ovation from the crowd, some of whom were in tears.
He gave a long list of thank-yous, to his family, friends and campaign volunteers — including an 85-year old supporter from Wyoming County who helped him gather signatures. In one poignant moment, he thanked his father, saying, "Every little boy wants to make his father proud; I'm sorry I couldn't do it today," to which his father interrupted with "You have."
Bellavia proclaimed his support for Collins in November's election. "We are going to lock shield as a party. We are going to stick in the trenches shoulder to shoulder," he said.
The scene was far different when Collins addressed jubilant supporters at the Twin Village VFW in Depew, where he congratulated Bellavia on his victory and noted his military service.
"His service to our country can never be forgotten," Collins said.
As national Democrats and the Hochul campaign were already cranking out anti-Collins press releases, the new nominee was also aggressively defending his record.
"In an era when we see American companies shipping jobs overseas and products back home, my companies are doing the exact opposite," he said. "I know what it takes to create jobs because that's what I've been doing for over 40 years…what won't help us create jobs is more spending."
He then provided the first preview of what is expected to be a concentrated effort to link Hochul to President Obama in the largely Republican district.
"We're not seeking to beat Kathy because she's not a nice person or because we don't like her. I worked with Kathy Hochul for four years and I know she does believe in public service," he said. "But her problem is her values are out of touch with the 27th Congressional District. Plain and simple, Kathy Hochul is a Barack Obama Democrat."
The Collins victory began resonating immediately on the local, state and national levels. Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy noted that while Collins' home county constitutes 38 percent of the district, it supplied about 43 percent of the districtwide vote.
"The enthusiasm in Erie and Niagara counties for Chris is where people know him best," he said. "There was no ?TV and minimal radio, and this shows the kind of growth potential for him in the district."
Christopher M. Grant, a longtime Collins aide now serving as an adviser to the campaign, added that Collins "overperformed" against all internal polling numbers available, again boding well for his effort as he enters a tough general election campaign against Hochul.
State GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox said the party will now unite behind Collins and launched his own broadside against the incumbent.
"Kathy Hochul has masqueraded as a moderate in her district, yet in Washington she has voted time and again to support the president's increases in spending, taxes, and regulatory burdens on small businesses," he said. "In contrast, Chris Collins knows the private sector is not ‘doing fine.' "
Hochul campaign manager Frank Thomas fired back with his own barrage against Hochul's now-official opponent.
"What more could he do on top of decimating Medicare and protecting the super rich?" Thomas said, echoing a Hochul campaign theme of her 2011 special election victory. "We hope that now that he is the nominee, he will be willing to answer questions on the issues that matter most to the people of the 27th District."
National Democrats at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added their own observations, calling Collins a "flawed candidate" with "baggage."
"This campaign is going to be a race between two opposites. Voters will have the chance to choose Kathy Hochul, who has built a strong, independent record, or Chris Collins, a slash-and-burn corporate raider who wants to decimate Medicare and make Western New York seniors pay more for health care," said Josh Schwerin, Northeast press secretary. "Western New York voters have already rejected Collins when they threw him out of office in Erie County, and rejected the Republican plan to slash Medicare when they elected Kathy Hochul last year."
News Staff Reporters Stephen T. Watson, Aaron Besecker, Kathleen Ronayne, Harold McNeil and Lauren Mariacher contributed to this report.??email: firstname.lastname@example.org