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GOP waits on Collins replacement, fearing 'domino effect' on ballot

Republican county leaders heard from the candidates, one by one, and liked what they heard.

And the more the GOP county chairs thought about it, the more they decided it's not the right time to throw any of those nine candidates into the legal thicket created by Rep. Chris Collins' indictment and subsequent decision to suspend his re-election campaign.

That's the take Republican insiders offered Wednesday, a day after the eight county chairs in New York's 27th Congressional District met with the nine people who want to replace Collins on the ballot in November.

Republican leaders still don't know exactly how to get Collins' name off the ballot, but they do know that Democrats will meet whatever they do with a legal challenge.

And if it doesn't go the Republicans' way, that legal fight could ruin the political career of the person Republicans select to run for Congress – and, if that candidate is a state senator, put the party's hold on the state Senate at risk, too.

"The domino effect could be a real problem," said Ralph Mohr, the Erie County Republican elections commissioner, who sat in on the candidate interviews.

To hear Mohr tell it, "everybody who walked in there (for an interview) did better than expected."

Other sources close to the county chairs agreed, but added that three candidates came across as slightly better equipped than the others to undertake a short and intense congressional race against Democrat Nathan McMurray.

Unfortunately for Republicans, those three candidates – state Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer of Amherst, state Sen. Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda and Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw – all make the county chairs worry about the "domino effect" Mohr mentioned.

Blame that fact on state election law, which gives Collins only three ways to leave the ballot. He can run for another office, he can move to another state, or he can die.

Even though Collins has a home in Florida, he probably can't claim residency there before the election. And for that reason, Republican leaders have been struggling to find another, lesser office for Collins to run for to remove his name from the congressional ballot.

Vacant seats in Eden town government have been mentioned as possibilities, as have currently occupied seats in the town of Clarence, where Collins lives.

But with Democrats likely to challenge any such move in court, GOP county chairmen have been left with the awful thought: What if the Democrats win the lawsuit?

"We're thinking: How does this disrupt the rest of the card game?" said John Pauer, the Republican chairman in Livingston County.

Here's how it could:

Suppose the GOP chairs pick Ranzenhofer for the congressional slot. Then they would nominate a new state Senate candidate to replace him.

But what if Democrats file a federal lawsuit that knocks Ranzenhofer off the congressional ballot and keeps Collins' name there?

That wouldn't knock the new GOP state Senate candidate off the ballot. So Ranzenhofer would be left politically homeless, without a ballot line in November, unless he were to sue the Republican who replaced him on the state Senate ballot line to try to reclaim his old job.

Substitute Ortt's name in that scenario, or that of state Sen. Chris Jacobs of Buffalo – another congressional contender – and the scenario would play itself out in exactly the same way.

Republicans privately say they're particularly worried about nominating Jacobs not only because doing so could upend Jacobs' political career, but also throw the state Senate to Democrats. That's because Jacobs represents a Democrat-dominated Senate seat that could easily flip to Democratic control – at a time when Republicans control the state Senate by only one vote.

Some party leaders said, though, that even nominating Ranzenhofer or Ortt could be risky, too, for the same reason.

And while Democrats control the state Assembly and Republicans are therefore less worried about losing an Assembly seat, they say the same scenario spelled out above could leave the two assemblymen in the congressional race – Ray Walter of Amherst and Stephen Hawley of Genesee County – without a slot on the ballot.

And while nominating Mychajliw for Congress wouldn't pose the same dangers, as he could continue to serve as county comptroller if he were to be knocked off the congressional ballot, Republican insiders posed other concerns about his potential House candidacy.

One Republican source noted that if Mychajliw wins the congressional seat, Erie County Republicans would lose in two ways.

First, they would lose the comptroller's seat, given that Democrats now control the Erie County Legislature and could therefore appoint Mychajliw's replacement. The county charter would force the Democratic legislature to appoint a Republican, but of course it would end up being a Republican that Democrats like.

And second, Republicans would lose their likely candidate for Erie County executive in 2019: Mychajliw.

All of those scenarios prompted the 27th District's GOP leaders to slow the process for nominating a congressional candidate.

"There are all these other considerations that we have to give ourselves time to digest," Pauer, the Livingston County GOP chairman, said.

And Ralph Lorigo, chairman of the small, but influential, Erie County Conservative Party, focused on the biggest consideration of all.

"My perception is that they're still trying to find the strongest way to remove Chris Collins from the ballot," said Lorigo, whose party often allies with the Republicans.

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