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Robert McCarthy: Democrats back to square one finding challenger to Collins

Robert J. McCarthy

Top-flight Democrats are not exactly lining up to take on GOP Congressman Chris Collins in 2018.

That’s the deal when you’re the incumbent representing the most Republican congressional district in New York, you’ve assembled an impressive team, can boast of overflowing campaign coffers and can dig into your own well-stuffed wallet just in case.

And, oh yes, you’re best buds with the president of the United States.

It makes no difference that each week features a new statewide poll showing Donald Trump sinking to new depths in New York. Not in Collins’ 27th District. Trump remains OK with the conservative voters of that vast swath of rural and suburban turf between Buffalo and Rochester.

Still, local Democrats seemed enthusiastic about a candidate named Erin Cole, who boasts a stellar résumé, including military service in Afghanistan.

But when The Buffalo News reported last week that Cole had abruptly and surprisingly withdrawn, Collins’ political team pounced.

“A swing and a miss for Team Cuomo,” the Collins campaign crowed. “Cuomo’s first pick to challenge Chris has dropped out of the race. Apparently, the Cuomo-Pelosi agenda is not an easy sell in Western New York.”

First Democrat to announce bid against Collins withdraws from race

Local Democrats insist Gov. Andrew Cuomo never even met Cole, and that he has not bothered himself with such details as the 27th District. Still, the governor sets Collins and Hudson Valley Republican John Faso squarely in his sights and is sure to support their Democratic challengers.

Cole said Thursday she had been serious about her candidacy, committing $26,000 of her own funds and staging one fundraiser. She spent two months talking and exploring before deciding “this was not the race for me.”

Cole earlier this year quit her job as an official of Cuomo’s Empire State Development Corp. to run for Congress. She said she didn’t quit to raise funds or gain the party endorsement, she quit to win. But she determined that challenging a powerful incumbent who gained 68 percent of the vote in 2016 was not going to work.

“A résumé is not enough to get somebody elected,” she said.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, meanwhile, says nothing was ever certain, and that nine others expressed interest during a spring organizing meeting in Batavia.

Zellner and other Dems say they suspect Cole encountered too many surprises, including the frequent requirement of national Dems to raise $350,000 just to prove genuine commitment. And they say that despite her own high-profile announcement, the chairmen were not yet on board.

“She anticipated that if she announced, everyone else would fall in line; that there would be no other challengers,” one Democratic insider said. “Most of the county chairs wanted to see which one was best.”

Even some of Cuomo’s most loyal supporters – Western New York’s Democratic chairmen – realize deep down that anyone linked to the governor’s administration would not play well in Collins Country. A Cuomo connection in the cities of Buffalo or Rochester will work nicely. But don’t try that in the boonies in between.

Now local Democrats go back to the drawing board, with no real sense of urgency – the Collins election still lies more than 13 months away. They sense vulnerability as the House Ethics Committee probes the congressman’s involvement with Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech company in which he invested and later touted to colleagues and Buffalo business leaders.

But they cannot tarry. It will cost lots to run against Collins in both the Buffalo and Rochester media markets. The Democrat must raise big dollars in a cause that everybody will politely label “uphill.”

A year after bitter defeat in county executive race, Chris Collins closes win over Hochul

Democrats have foundered in their efforts against Collins ever since the 2012 effort of Kathy Hochul – now New York’s lieutenant governor and a frequent Collins critic. The eventual candidate will face a tough time overcoming conventional wisdom: “If Kathy Hochul can’t beat him, nobody can.”

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