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Collins faces challenge from 26-year-old GOP newcomer

WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican whom Democrats plan to target in the 2018 election, will first have to vanquish an opponent from within his own party.

Frank C. Smierciak II, a 26-year-old Republican from Lancaster running for public office for the first time, announced in a news release that he plans to challenge Collins in his bid for a fourth term representing New York's 27th congressional district.

A political newcomer, Smierciak vows to be more in touch with the district than Collins, who has weathered criticism for refusing to hold town hall meetings with his constituents.

“I am doing this for the men, women and children that have been left behind and continually see Congress and the Washington elite take care of their own needs first and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves," Smierciak said in the news release.

In an interview, Smierciak said he is a conservative Republican who agrees with Collins on many issues.

"I don't want to speak negatively about Chris Collins, but he seems to be somewhat out of touch with his district," Smierciak said.

He vowed he would be just the opposite, holding town hall meetings at least once a month in various parts of the sprawling district, which connects several Buffalo suburbs to the western Rochester suburbs via the countryside in between.

Asked about Smierciak's challenge, Collins' political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, said: "We welcome anyone who wants to engage in the political process ... We're looking forward to putting Chris' record of delivering for his constituents up against anyone."

Grant mentioned Collins' fight against Plan 2014 – a new way of regulating Lake Ontario water levels that local residents blame for flooding – as just part of the proof that Collins is working for his constituents rather than spending his time at "the political spectacle of manufactured town halls."

Collins' opposition to free trade deals and support of Flight 3407 safety regulations also prove that he's working hard for his district, Grant added.

Smierciak starts the race as a political unknown. He works at Optum, part of UnitedHealth Group, in medical payment administration. He said he holds undergraduate and master's degrees in history from the University at Buffalo, where he served as a senator in the Graduate Student Association.

His candidacy is a bit of a surprise, too, because it comes before any big-name or party-backed Democrats have even announced a challenge to Collins – one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's top targets. Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner said he expects Democratic challengers to emerge in the next few months and for the party to converge on a strong candidate before a primary.

Smierciak – who calls himself a strong supporter of President Trump – said he has considered a bid for electoral office for some time. He said he plans to rely on grassroots fundraising to take on Collins, who had nearly $1 million in his campaign war chest at the end of March and who had at least nine D.C. fundraisers in the year's second quarter.

Smierciak said he did not plan to make an issue of the fact that Collins is the subject of an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation in connection with his investment in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm that he touted for years.

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