WASHINGTON – Democrats have announced the first group of Republican House members they plan on targeting in the 2018 election, and it includes a surprising name: Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence.
Collins was included among 59 Republicans nationwide in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's first list of targets for the midterm election, even though he has coasted to re-election in his past two races.
The group decided to target Collins because it is looking to broaden the playing field beyond the competitive districts it usually targets, and because Collins may be newly vulnerable, said Meredith Kelly, the DCCC's spokesman.
"Chris Collins has a lot of explaining to do to the people of Western New York," Kelly said. "The allegations against him, of insider trading, are really serious."
Kelly was referring to a recent controversy surrounding Collins. The controversy stems from the fact that Collins told Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. – President Donald J. Trump's nominee for health and human services secretary – about an Australian biotech company where Collins was the top shareholder. Both Collins and Price subsequently bought into the company's private stock offering, where they were able to buy stock at a 12 percent discount.
Collins has denied any wrongdoing, telling CNN last week: "There was nothing done that was insider trading or unethical." And legal experts said last week that there is no evidence as of yet that Collins or Price broke the law, while House ethics experts said they doubted the House ethics committee would take action against Collins.
Collins' former top aide and longtime political consultant, Chris Grant, echoed Collins' comments – and said he didn't take the DCCC's threat, which it issued Monday, very seriously.
"That was a good Monday funny," Grant said. "I enjoyed that."
Grant noted that Collins won 72 percent of the vote in the 2014 midterm election and 68 percent of the vote last year in New York's 27th congressional district, a heavily Republican stretch of territory that connects Buffalo's suburbs and rural Niagara County with Rochester's suburbs via the farmland and small towns in between.
"The reality is, they have no shot at this," Grant added.
Kelly said the DCCC did not yet have any candidates in mind to challenge Collins, who routed Batavia Democrat Diana Kastenbaum in last November's election.
But much has changed since the November election. Collins was the first member of the House to endorse Trump, and Kelly indicated that Trump's controversial actions could bounce back and hurt supporters such as Collins.
In addition, the controversy about Collins' investment in Innate Immunotherapeutics, that Australian biotech firm, continues to swirl.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that, because of Collins' tip, Price was invited to be one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors who got in on that company's private stock deal last year – even though Price said at his confirmation hearing that the discounted shares “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”
Collins replied in an email to Simon Wilkinson, the company's CEO, which the congressman accidentally forwarded to CNN.
"Simon. Yellow journalism," Collins wrote. "Making the story fit a bias regardless of the facts. Distorted...In fact the offer was made available to every US shareholder who had ever participated in any share offering in the US."
The DCCC's list of targeted Republican lawmakers includes four others from New York: Rep. John Katko of the Syracuse area; Rep. Claudia Tenney, who represents a district including the Utica area; Rep. John Faso of the Hudson Valley; Rep. Dan Donovan of Staten Island; and Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island.
A longtime Democratic target – Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning – was not on the list, but Kelly said: "This is just the initial round of Republican targets, and is likely to expand in the future."