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Bob McCarthy: Stunned Republicans seethe over Chris Collins dilemma

In Republican lairs all over Western New York, the anger and resentment is seething.

Chris Collins, the safest Republican congressman in the entire state, has suddenly thrust a sure thing into question mark territory.

Nobody in GOP Land is happy. They must raise money for one of their own now in trouble — someone who may even end up in jail. They must cheer on Collins at firemen’s picnics and chicken barbecues even as he refuses to answer questions from constituents about the overarching issue of the 2018 re-election campaign – his federal indictment on insider trading charges.

“What kind of campaign can he run?” they ask.

Other Republican candidates on the ballot – some facing tough races – now worry about the Collins effect on their efforts. Some fret that Collins nominees or those mentioned as his favorites for federal office, like John Sinatra for U.S. district judge or Peter Vito for U.S. marshal, may now encounter confirmation troubles.

And they are forced to consider a host of legal and political maneuvers to retain the Collins seat, just as Democrats gain so much steam they are measuring for drapes in the speaker’s office.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy, never a Collins confidante but a loyal supporter, avoids any direct answer to whether the party still stands behind its congressman. He acknowledges local Republicans harbor mixed feelings about the sudden predicament.

“I was not expecting the issue of Innate Immunotherapeutics to be back on the front burner, and I really did not expect this to be much of a contested race,” he said. “It was a great surprise.”

Cable news shows have blared the Collins story, and national reporters descended on Batavia for reaction on Thursday. With the GOP House majority and President Trump’s agenda in the balance, Collins has created an official “big deal.”

In a conference call with reporters around the country on Thursday, Rep. John Sarbanes, chairman of House Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force, could hardly contain himself while noting the close relationship between Collins and the president.

“It’s just another example of how a fish rots from the head,” Sarbanes said. “That attitude, that mentality, that lens on the government has infested everybody who hangs around with him, and Chris Collins is one of the people he hangs around with.

“Collins has been one of the president’s lieutenants and Collins is just another example of how the president’s ethical blindness has infected administration officials and Republican members of Congress,” he added.

Democrats, meanwhile, are putting a new focus on the race. Nate McMurray, the Grand Island supervisor to whom few paid attention until Wednesday morning when the indictments were announced, met with Rochester reporters on Thursday to breathe new life into his campaign. He was slated for a national appearance on MSNBC Thursday night, after gaining hardly any attention even from local media in recent months.

Other signs of Democratic interest surfaced Thursday. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in to remind any who will listen that the Collins seat has been a “target” all along. Maybe now, however, they’ll inject money and manpower into McMurray’s effort.

Enter Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. He says his powerful union group is re-evaluating its role on behalf of the Democratic candidate.

“We’re looking at this very, very closely,” he said. “Everything has changed.”

But Republicans face the immediate dilemma. Langworthy, who heads the largest county in the district, noted that Collins can exit the November ballot at this late date only by a series of political maneuvers rarely – if ever – used in all of New York. He assigns that onus to the congressman.

“He is the Republican nominee and will run so long as he wants to,” he said. “He is the only one who can find a way to get out of the race.”

One scheme entering the Collins post-arraignment discussion is to roll the dice and try to win against McMurray, considered possible because of the significant Republican enrollment advantage. Some GOP types envision Collins playing on his relationship with the president in a pro-Trump district and winning. Then if Collins were convicted and removed from office or resigned, the seat would remain in Republican hands until a special election would install a permanent GOP successor.

Privately, a host of Republicans who have read the Collins indictment call it “damning.”

There are reports of stirring among potential GOP successors, asking what will happen if Collins leaves and an opening occurs soon or eventually. But no solid moves are resulting.

Most observers see Western New York Republicans, many of whom have no real relationship with the congressman, still reeling over his indictment.

“Right now, we have to contact all our people and supporters and see where the world is,” Langworthy said. “I was just really taken by surprise by this.”

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