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Reed, Plumb among congressional candidates tip-toeing around Trump

CLEVELAND – On the day after national television highlighted Rep. Chris Collins seconding the nomination of Donald Trump for president, his congressional counterpart from the Southern Tier also faced cameras in an impoverished corner of this convention city.

But only one local photographer and some cellphones captured Republican Rep. Tom Reed of Corning, who was serving lunch at the Boys & Girls Clubs of King Kennedy Center to about 50 inner-city kids to raise awareness about urban hunger.

That’s the stark difference in how Western New York’s two Republican congressmen are demonstrating their support for Trump’s candidacy.

Collins, hailing from the most Republican congressional district in New York State, has notched more than 100 television appearances and serves as a Trump representative at the convention. As a result, he has significantly raised his national profile.

Reed, by contrast, faces a tough re-election fight this year against John Plumb, a Jamestown native and Naval Reserve officer. Trump proves more than controversial in Democratic enclaves of the 23rd District like Ithaca, and though Reed proudly supports the party’s nominee, his style would have to be labeled low key.

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"We’re kind of quiet about it, working behind the scenes and talking about the issues," Reed said Wednesday while sitting on a bench in the Boys & Girls Clubs' gym.

It all seems to represent the "love him or hate him" nature of the Trump candidacy, even among Republicans. And it’s happening around the country, as Republicans and Democrats alike in districts like Reed’s struggle over whether to embrace the bombastic billionaire, totally reject him or walk a fine line in between.

Rep. Chris Collins, center, mingles during the New York Delegation Breakfast at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Derek Gee)

Rep. Chris Collins, center, has more publicly taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"Republican candidates across the country are in a difficult place," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "They need the Trump supporters and they need the people who think Trump is offensive. They really need a coalition of both together."

Another Washington observer, Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, also is watching the situation.

"Reed has not endorsed Trump with the same gusto as Collins," he said. "He appeared pressured to endorse."

Reed has learned in recent years that Democrats can sneak up, even in a district where Republicans hold an enrollment edge of about 23,000 voters. In 2012, he narrowly defeated Democrat Nate Shinagawa of Ithaca before bouncing back to trounce Democrat Martha Robertson in 2014.

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But this year, the former Corning mayor faces a tricky situation. Trump swept the district during the April primary, as he did in almost all of New York. But winning in November presents a special challenge since a tough effort lies ahead for Democrat Hillary Clinton, too, who lost every county in the district to intra-party rival Bernie Sanders.

"It’s an area where Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time on her listening tour (in 1999)," Wasserman recalled. "My sense is that people don’t think there’s been much change in their economic outlook since and that Hillary has done little to improve their outlook on life.

"That region of the state should be prime for Trump," he added, "but nothing is certain."

The uncertainty of the situation leads Reed's rival, Plumb, to avoid much discussion of Trump, too. This week’s Quinnipiac University poll shows Trump with a 12-point lead over Clinton throughout upstate, and the 23rd District is not expected to differ substantially.

Plumb says he’s primarily interested in the district.

"I’m not running against Donald Trump, I’m running against Tom Reed," he said.

Plumb said he will "of course" vote for Clinton, pointing to Trump as "dangerously divisive" and "unfit to be commander-in-chief." He said he doesn’t "like to prognosticate" about votes, but does not seem to want to talk about Trump, either.

"This district is what I’m interested in," he said.

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Reed, meanwhile, pointed out he joined the Trump effort early, right after the Florida primary. He believes the nominee "offers a vision for America" that has resonated with many voters.

Reed said he meets weekly with Trump campaign representatives and likes what he sees, but is not entirely comfortable with the candidate.

"We have expressed our concerns about the rhetoric at times," he said. "I’ve talked to him about it personally. I don’t know whether it’s the New York City thing or what, but he has a different style from us."

Still, he knows some in his district are attracted to Trump no matter what his style.

"I get the sense people are looking for change," he said, and "breaking up that log jam."

The experts, meanwhile, say Reed maintains an edge in the race while noting it is still early. Wasserman rates it "leaning Republican," while Gonzales has not ranked it in his list of 35 competitive races.

"The Democrats say it’s in play, but I don’t think it’s there yet," he said.

The district’s veteran observers, like Republican Cattaraugus County Legislator James J. Snyder of Olean – who once ran for the seat against Democrat Stan Lundine – acknowledge that Reed cannot appear as enthusiastic about Trump as "Collins up there in Clarence."

"The district here is not as lopsided," he said, "so Reed has to tip-toe through the political tulips."



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