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The Briefing: Top Republican confident in Collins

WASHINGTON – The Republican in charge of electing more Republicans to the House doesn't seem so worried about losing Rep. Chris Collins as a colleague.

Asked about the Clarence lawmaker's re-election bid, Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, made clear that he knows virtually nothing about Collins' race against Democrat Nate McMurray.

In fact, it seemed pretty clear that Stivers doesn't even know McMurray's name.

"I don't have any concerns about Chris Collins," Stivers, an Ohio Republican, said at a meeting with regional reporters last week. "His major opponent dropped out."

Asked if he meant Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who withstood pressure from allies of Gov. Cuomo to run against Collins, Stivers said no. Asked if he meant Nick Stankevich, a businessman who dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, Stivers appeared to have never even heard that name, either.

That gives you some idea how much attention people in Washington are paying to what Democrats in Western New York see as a marquee race.

Some indications of that disconnect came clear two weeks ago at a Regional Reporters Association event with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, Stivers' Democratic counterpart, who never mentioned McMurray by name when discussing the Collins race.

But if anything, Stivers made it even clearer that pretty much everyone in Washington thinks Collins is a solid bet for re-election.

"I don't see a real significant challenge to Chris at this point," Stivers said. "I don't see them being effective in coming after Chris. He's well-liked. He's well-known. He represents the people around Buffalo very, very well."

Of course, McMurray – a.k.a. What's-His-Name – would beg to differ. He noted that Collins has a natural edge in the heavily Republican 27th congressional district, but vowed to put up a dogged fight.

"No matter what Mr. Stivers 'believes' the facts show that Mr. Collins was involved in some VERY bad stuff— possibly illegal stock scams with his congressional pals," McMurray wrote in an email to The News. "Among those who know these facts (and know him), Mr. Collins is VERY unpopular."

The Office of Congressional Ethics reported last fall that it had reason to believe Collins illegally touted the stock of Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech in which he is heavily invested, to other investors. What's more, ethics investigators said Collins tried to help that Aussie company in its dealings with the National Institutes of Health.

And while Democrats promise to make that an issue, Stivers dismissed it out of hand.

"I believe Chris when he says he didn't do anything wrong," Stivers said.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that politicos like Stivers are supposed to do: see halos over the head of every party candidate and imagine a bright, shiny future for the party no matter what the polls say.

And the polls say Republicans are in trouble this fall. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls gives Democrats a 6.8 point average over the GOP on what's called the generic ballot -- that is, the question about which party you would want to represent you in the House next year. And many prognosticators see that as being enough to carry Democrats to a new House majority in November.

But still, none of the three main prognosticators -- the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections or Sabato's Crystal Ball -- put the Collins-McMurray race on their lists of hotly contested contests.

Sabato ranks the Southern Tier contest between Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, and a yet-to-be-named Democrat as competitive, but barely. Sabato labeled that race "likely Republican," while the other two prognosticators don't think that one will be much of a race at all.

Five little-known Democrats are competing in a June 26 primary to challenge Reed, and Stivers said competitive Democratic primaries like that one hand an advantage to Republicans.

"The Democrats have a huge primary problem," he said. "You've seen it play out all around the country where they have a lot of candidates. And it's forcing their whole field to the left, and what that does in swing districts is it makes it hard for them. They're going to try to run back in the middle after the primary but there's a ton of primaries that happen kind of late. And so especially in the later primaries, it's really hard to get back to the center."

Collins and Reed won't just have to deal with their opponents, though. They'll also have to deal with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has vowed to try to defeat House Republicans who backed last year's tax overhaul bill. That measure will increase taxes for many New York homeowners because of its new limits on the state and local tax deduction.

Asked how New York Republicans can counter Cuomo's efforts, Stivers didn't sound too worried about them.

"I think the ones who voted for the tax bill are going to be proven right because I think the tax bill is going to grow our economy," he said. "Things are going pretty well and getting stronger."

As for Cuomo, Stivers said: "Maybe the governor should look in the mirror and say: Why did I keep taxes so high?"

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