WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins faces challenges that might be enough to knock off a typical politician: a stock investment that led to an ethics investigation, deep ties to an unpopular president – and the occasional habit of saying something controversial.
But, so far, 17 months before his next election, the Clarence Republican lacks the most important challenge.
While candidates have already announced challenges and started raising funds in several other congressional races nationwide, that has not happened in Collins' district.
Instead, two big-name potential opponents – Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz – have said they are not interested in challenging Collins in 2018.
“I talked to both of them about the possibility, and it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards,” said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.
And while Zellner said he’s pleased with the 10 lesser-known potential candidates who have indicated their interest to Democratic chairmen throughout the sprawling 27th Congressional District, neither the Cook Political Report nor Inside Elections – D.C.'s top political prognosticators – rank Collins’ next race as competitive.
“At this point it doesn’t look like a realistic takeover target for Democrats,” said David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report.
There’s one simple reason for that fact.
Republicans have an 11 percentage point enrollment advantage in the largely suburban and rural district between Buffalo and Rochester, Wasserman noted. That’s equal to the GOP advantage in Montana, where Republican Greg Gianforte won a special election for the state’s lone House seat Thursday despite being charged with allegedly assaulting a reporter a day earlier.
Eleven points is a huge margin for any Democrat to overcome – but Hochul almost did it once. She won the seat in a special election in 2011, back when the district lines were friendlier to Democrats, only to lose to Collins by 1.4 points in 2012.
But, she said, she doesn’t have any interest in taking on Collins once again.
“I have been approached and I’m flattered by the interest; however, I take pride in working with Governor Cuomo for the people of the entire state,” Hochul said. “It’s a privilege.”
Besides, Hochul added, she feels she's needed at the governor’s side as he fights President Trump’s agenda and the harm it could do to New York State.
Poloncarz, too, has been deeply critical of Trump. But Poloncarz said he has no interest at this point in challenging Collins, one of Trump’s strongest congressional allies.
“Right now I feel I can do more good as county executive,” said Poloncarz, who defeated Collins, his predecessor in county government’s top job, in 2011.
Poloncarz said he might reconsider the race if it were at some point a vacant seat, but he acknowledged he might not be the best political fit for the largely conservative district.
“I am pretty progressive,” he said. “I’m not sure the way I lean would reflect the majority of voters out there.”
Neither Hochul nor Poloncarz live in the district, either, which also could be a handicap if they decided to run.
With those big-name possibilities on the sidelines, the Turn 27 Blue Coalition – a group consisting of the district’s eight Democratic county chairs and several other local progressive leaders – is sorting through 10 potential candidates who have sent their resumes to the group.
While other candidates still might express interest in the race, members of the coalition said they were happy with the potential Collins challengers they met recently.
“These candidates who met with us truly seemed to aspire to the ideal of public service,” said Michelle Johnston Schoeneman of Citizens Against Collins, which has sponsored electronic billboards criticizing the congressman.
One of the potential candidates is Diana Kastenbaum, the Batavia businesswoman who lost to Collins by 35 points last November in a district that Donald Trump carried by 25 points. Zellner declined to name the other possible candidates.
None of those potential candidates currently serves in elected office, Zellner said.
Whichever candidate runs against Collins, that candidate will benefit from two things: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to target Collins next year, and the creation of an ActBlue.com fundraising site where people can send donations that will be used against Collins.
“There’s just so much energy out there right now to accomplish this, and we’re making sure ordinary voters in the district can do something constructive right now,” said Cynthia M. Appleton, the Wyoming County Democratic chair.
Collins has recently picked up the pace of his fundraising, holding nine D.C. fundraisers in seven weeks.
And Collins’ fundraising alone might be enough to scare off some competition, said Christopher M. Grant, a political adviser.
“People see him raising money, running an aggressive, hard-charging operation,” Grant said. He added: “Chris Collins represents the red center of this district the right way.”