WASHINGTON — Rep. Chris Collins: bad guy. Get used to hearing that, because that's going to be just what Democrats will be saying about the Clarence Republican from now through Election Day.
That's already what Collins' Democratic opponent, Nate McMurray, has been saying in recent weeks. And it's just what the Democrat charged with electing more House Democrats said Friday in a meeting with regional reporters.
Asked what McMurray can do to run a competitive race against Collins in a district that President Trump won by 25 points, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan – who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – immediately referred to the House Ethics Committee investigation into Collins' investment in an Australian biotech called Innate Immunotherapeutics.
"With Mr. Collins – look, what we've seen in race after race where Republicans are plagued with scandal, voters don't like that," Lujan said. That means candidates like McMurray "have to talk to the voters and make sure they're learning about this and hearing about it. And that's one of the challenges we have in a district like that of Mr. Collins where inherently there's a Republican performance advantage."
That seems to be what McMurray, the Grand Island supervisor, is doing so far. For example, just last week, The Buffalo News reported that local Republican donor Nick Sinatra owes more than $800,000 in back taxes. McMurray quickly responded with a press release noting that Collins is Sinatra's business partner on several projects, although not the ones where Sinatra hasn't paid his tax bills.
That's not likely to be the main ethics issue hounding Collins, though. The main issue is Innate Immunotherapeutics.
The Office of Congressional Ethics found last year that it had a "substantial reason to believe" that Collins violated federal law by touting the stock of that obscure Australian biotech firm based on inside information, while also possibly breaking House ethics rules by persuading National Institutes of Health officials to meet with a staffer from that company.
The House Ethics Committee said upon receiving that report that it was continuing its investigation of Collins, and it's anyone's guess whether it will make public its findings before Election Day.
But in any case, Democrats will continue reminding voters that they don't regard Collins as Saint Christopher.
"In the case where there's something that just doesn't smell right, voters will sniff that out," said Lujan, of New Mexico. "And I think there's the opportunity to make this a much closer race and to ultimately see how we can defeat someone like Mr. Collins."
Asked for a response to Lujan's comments, Collins' political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, said he expected Collins to be exonerated in the probe.
Lujan said Collins will have to work to re-earn the trust of voters in New York's heavily Republican 27th district, but Grant disagreed.
"Voters know who Chris Collins is," Grant said. "They know he's a successful businessman, they know he's invested in stuff. He's been transparent about it. So it isn't an issue."
To hear Grant tell it, what's really interesting about Lujan's session with reporters isn't what he said; it's what he didn't say.
He didn't mention McMurray's name. Despite a long-ago promise that it would target Collins in 2018, Lujan's outfit hasn't put New York's 27th district on its "Red to Blue" top priority list. And Lujan said nothing about devoting national campaign resources to the race.
That's likely has something to do with the fact that national political prognosticators, citing the district's heavy Republican enrollment advantage, so far don't think the race is competitive.
They're not so excited, either, about the race in New York's 23rd District, which will pit the incumbent Republican, Rep. Tom Reed of Corning, against whatever Democrat emerges from a Star Wars bar scene of little-known contenders.
Asked about the upcoming Democratic primary in that Southern Tier race, Lujan acknowledged that it poses "a challenge," in that Democrats will be spending resources fighting each other rather than fighting Reed. But he also noted that a primary can boost the winning candidate's name recognition and jump-start his or her effort.
The plethora of candidates shows, too, that Democrats are excited to be running in an election where a controversial Republican president has motivated Democratic voters to get active and turn out, Lujan added.
"In an environment where the wind is at our back, I would say: no one has ever lost because of too much energy," he said. "We have a lot of energy and excitement around the country, even in these tougher districts, these red-leaning districts like the 23rd and 27th" in New York.
Of course, Rep. Steve Stivers, the Ohio Republican who heads the GOP equivalent of Lujan's outfit, would probably have a different take on things. And he'll get his chance to offer his take on Western New York's congressional races at a Regional Reporters Association meeting, and in a subsequent Briefing, later this month.
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