While Republicans debate Rep. Chris Collins' possible replacement on the November ballot, Democratic candidate Nathan McMurray is barnstorming the 27th Congressional District — from Hamburg to Canandaigua to Farmington to Lewiston — hosting town halls, campaigning in coffee houses and even riding in a demolition derby.
Few gave the 43-year-old Grand Island town supervisor any chance of winning in the heavily Republican district before Collins was indicted on insider trading charges nearly three weeks ago and suspended his re-election campaign.
But Collins' sudden downfall gave McMurray's financially struggling campaign a jolt, even if he still faces a heavy disadvantage in voter enrollment and had raised less than $150,000 by June 30 in a race where candidates typically spend more than $1 million.
"There's been a flood of new support and energy. More than $100,000 in donations" since Collins was charged Aug. 8, said McMurray.
It's as if it's a new campaign for McMurray, who, just weeks ago, ambushed Collins at a country fair asking for a debate and signed up for the Erie County Fair demolition derby as a way to draw attention to his campaign.
That's not to say McMurray's "new" campaign will be easy.
For a Democrat to win a deep red district remains a challenge, said Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.
"The demographics are working against him," Neiheisel said. "Depending on who the Republicans put up, it's within striking distance, but it's an uphill battle."
Talking issues over coffee
It's Wednesday morning.
McMurray, born and raised in Niagara County, is in Lewiston, at a coffee shop where everyone seems to know his name.
"I am a supporter," attorney Paul Barr says, as he walks up to McMurray, who was at the Orange Cat Coffee Co. talking with a Buffalo News reporter.
"I think we might win. We got a shot," Barr tells McMurray.
After a minute or so, McMurray returns to his interview, sitting near his recently hired campaign manager, Victoria Dillon, who once worked for the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Rochester-area Democrat.
McMurray answers some issues questions.
On the border wall President Trump wants to build: "It's a colossal waste of money. There are better ways to secure the border."
On the Trump tax cut: "It's great for somebody, but not the vast majority of residents in the 27th who are struggling."
On the Trump tariffs: "It's ridiculous. NAFTA needs to be renegotiated but putting tariffs on soy farmers doesn't make sense. It's unfair to use them as pawns in a trade war."
On the Second Amendment right to bear arms: "I support the Second Amendment. I believe people have a right to self defense."
Murray goes on to say he also supports universal background checks, wants bump stocks banned and opposes civilian purchases of "weapons of war," but says the term needs to be defined.
On health care: "Define what basic insurance is, then figure out a way to cover it."
McMurray says he's talking about a single-payer government plan to provide basic health care for all Americans.
With that, a group of people sitting nearby perked up, nodding their heads in approval of what McMurray just said about health care.
A Republican stronghold
The 27th Congressional District is not particularly welcoming to Democrats. Spanning from the Buffalo suburbs to the Rochester suburbs, it has more Republicans than any other Congressional district in New York and gave President Donald Trump the largest margin of victory in the state in the 2016 presidential election.
With almost 470,000 active registered voters, close to 143,000 are registered Democrats, while about 196,000 are registered Republicans or Conservatives. Almost 30,000 are members of other minor parties, and 98,000 are not affiliated with a party.
Collins won with 67 percent of the vote in 2016. Trump, a Republican, won the district by 24.3 points, although Democrat Hillary Clinton won New York State by 22.5 points.
While McMurray has sounded optimistic from the beginning, this isn't a district Democratic leaders expected to win before Collins was charged. They still aren't getting ready to throw a victory party. But they aren't throwing in the towel, either.
"We are cautiously optimistic," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner. "It's been uphill from the beginning. A very safe Republican district. It's a little less safe now."
There was, after all, the Democrat's almost-win in 2012, when Collins squeaked by Democrat Kathy Hochul by 5,000 votes — less than a 2-percentage point margin.
Of course Hochul, back then, was the incumbent, having won the seat prior to it being reconfigured into its current boundaries after the 2010 census.
What's more, early polling by Clout Research, a Columbus, Ohio-based pollster not affiliated with the candidates, found any of eight potential candidates being mentioned as replacements for Collins on the ballot could beat McMurray. At this point, however, the GOP hasn't decided who will replace Collins at the voting booth, and it's not even clear that the congressman's name can be taken off the ballot.
Demolition Derby time
Early on in his campaign, when he was getting less attention, McMurray decided to sign up for the demolition derby at the Erie County Fair.
"We were trying to get attention any way we can," he said.
The sign-up was prior to the Collins arrest, but the event was after. McMurray participated in the derby, wearing a votemcmurray.com T-shirt and driving a car with "Vote McMurray" bumper stickers.
"It was more fun than you can believe," he says.
But McMurray no longer needs to drive in a demolition derby to get media attention.
In the first few days after Collins' indictment, McMurray said, his campaign heard from CNN, MSNBC, the Hill, the New York Times and even "Meet the Press."
What's more, he says, he's been holding events in rural communities, including the Livingston County Town of Hemlock, attracting 100 or more people at a time. He walked into a standing-room-only crowd in the Ontario County town of Farmington, which didn't have a Democratic committee until six months ago.
"It's hard to go to the grocery store," he says, referring to his newfound popularity in the weeks since Collins' arrest.
A low-budget campaign
When Republicans interested in Collins' seat this past week appeared before GOP county leaders, they were asked about their ability to raise funds.
That's because it's expensive to run a congressional campaign, particularly in a sprawling district like the 27th, which covers two media markets — the Buffalo area and the Rochester area — and therefore increases the amount of high-priced television advertising that a campaign will need to buy.
In 2012, for example, when Hochul almost beat Collins, her campaign spent close to $3 million, while the Collins campaign spent $1.3 million, according to campaign finance reports. That doesn't include additional funds spent by independent super PACS supporting the candidates.
McMurray has been running a low-budget campaign, traveling around the district and meeting with groups of voters. He's also regularly posting on Facebook and Twitter.
His campaign raised $133,775 and spent $52,203 as of June 30, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Within a week or so after the Collins indictment, McMurray said, his campaign raised another $100,000. And his fundraising has continued.
He had four events scheduled this past week, including one Tuesday night co-sponsored by former Rep. John LaFalce of the Town of Tonawanda.
When LaFalce was first asked to co-sponsor the fundraiser, he didn't immediately respond. He's a big fan of McMurray, LaFalce says, pointing out that the Democratic candidate is an attorney and a Fulbright scholar who speaks Chinese and Korean.
Nonetheless, "I really didn't think he had much of a chance in an unbelievably red seat," LaFalce said.
But then Collins was arrested.
"When Collins erupted, I thought, 'Nate has a fighting chance, and I ought to do what I can,' " LaFalce said.
So LaFalce agreed to co-host the fundraiser, hoping his name would attract more money Tuesday night and perhaps also send a message to national Democratic organizations that McMurray's campaign is worth supporting.
The fundraiser was packed, McMurray said. He said he didn't know how much money was raised.
He said he'll need to raise more money for television advertising as his campaign moves forward.
"We are building a more aggressive financial operation. We're going to put together the program we need to win," said Dillon, the campaign manager.
McMurray said he won't accept money from corporations, not even from Delaware North, where he's employed as vice president for business development. "I don't want people saying I'm in the pocket of Delaware North," he said.
McMurray said he will, however, take campaign funds from political action committees representing groups he believes in, including unions.
In recent weeks, the United Steelworkers, the New York State United Teachers and Service Employees International Union 119 came out in support of McMurray. Other unions already in his corner include the Western New York Area Labor Federation, the New York State AFL-CIO, and the Communication Workers of America.
McMurray said he's also hoping for money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which contacted him following Collins' arrest. So far, the committee has offered digital marketing assistance and advice on hiring a campaign manager. No word yet on whether the committee will make financial donations.
"I think at the end of the day, he'll have enough money to be competitive," said Zellner, the Erie County Democratic chairman.