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Chris Collins' resolve to remain on ballot blindsides GOP

Sometime this week, Republican leaders had planned to unveil their grand plan to replace Chris Collins on the 27th Congressional District ballot following his August indictment on insider trading charges.

But Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy says Collins “threw us a curveball” by announcing Monday that everything has changed. The Clarence Republican said through his attorneys that he will remain in the race, paving the way for a wild and woolly contest already taking shape that features an incumbent facing possible prison time against Democrat Nathan McMurray.

The shocker development, stemming from major concerns lodged by the congressman’s criminal attorneys, was neither anticipated nor appreciated by Langworthy and the other Republican county chairmen who toiled for six weeks to find an election law loophole to remove Collins from the ballot.

“We had a crystal clear way to replace Congressman Collins on the ballot,” Langworthy said. “This is obviously not something we were expecting.

“You can’t help but feel like a jilted groom at the altar,” he added.

 

Langworthy and his GOP cohorts had been focusing on Clarence and potentially substituting the congressman for a Town Board member post in a move that almost certainly would have drawn a legal challenge from Democrats. Last week Collins told WIVB-TV he was “cooperating” with party leaders and would acquiesce to whatever plan they adopted, as he had suspended his campaign since Aug. 11.

But that changed Monday after lawyers overruled his stated plan, citing concerns that more litigation stemming from the ballot substitution could complicate his criminal case. According to one source, questions even rose about whether participating in a ballot switch might jeopardize the bail authorized in August by a federal judge.

“It was no longer in the best interest of his legal team and his legal defense,” Langworthy said Monday during a press conference at Republican Headquarters. “There are certain documents in lawsuits that could undermine his legal defense in some way.”

Collins attorney Mark Braden issued a statement that left unanswered a host of questions.

“Because of the protracted and uncertain nature of any legal effort to replace Congressman Collins we do not see a path allowing Congressman Collins to be replaced on the ballot,” he said.

But he did not address, and Republican sources say they do not expect Collins to address at this time, other key questions: What will he do if he wins? Will he resign? Or will he continue to serve in hopes of beating the charges on crimes he denies committing?

“We’re figuring out the next steps,” the source said, adding that attorneys are also involved in those deliberations.

A bipertisan team from the Erie County Board of Elections began their count of the 2018 absentee ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. They began with the 5588 ballots from the 27th District. A cart is filled with ballots. These are ballots from Clarence. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

It became immediately clear, however, that Democrats are invigorated about reclaiming the most Republican district in New York State for the first time since Collins wrested it away from incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul in 2012.

“In truth, we always knew we were running against Chris Collins,” McMurray said. “There are laws for a reason. There is accountability in our society for a reason. And in the greatest democracy in the world, voters weren’t going to take this kind of sham switching around names on a ballot at the whims of local party bosses.

“I credit the people of Western New York for standing up in town after town saying ‘don’t force him on the ballot in my town,’ ” he added.

The new developments even included Tom Perez, the Buffalo native and former secretary of labor who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He jumped into the campaign while appearing with local Democrats at McMurray’s headquarters in Hamburg just as the news broke on Monday.

Perez even noted that while heading the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, he sued Collins (who was then Erie County executive) over conditions in county jails.

“I’ve got some history with him,” Perez said. “One of the things he said was: ‘I’m not going to build a Hilton.’ I wasn’t asking him to build a Hilton. But pretty soon, he’s going to find out what the Hilton looks like.”

And Perez outlined the course most observers now see taking shape in the Collins-McMurray contest.

“The contrast couldn’t be more stark: an indicted felon who wants to stay on the ballot,” he said. “Integrity is on the ballot this November and I am confident that Nate McMurray is going to win.”

He also acknowledged McMurray as the underdog.

“Underdogs win when underdogs work hard,” he said. “They lead with their values and they connect with voters.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the panel charged with electing more Democrats to the House of Representatives, also joined the “clear choice” theme.

“The voters of New York 27th Congressional District now have the clearest of choices between scandal-plagued Chris Collins and Nate McMurray, who will be a real fighter for the families of Western New York,” it said, “and the stakes just got a whole lot higher on November 6th.”

The panel did not indicate, however, whether it would commit the financial resources needed to take on Collins. On the GOP side, Langworthy on Monday all but challenged Collins to empty his $1.3 million campaign account.

“If he has $1.3 million in his war chest, I certainly hope he will spend all that money,” he said. “That’s money to help keep the House of Representatives in Republican hands.”

And in a preview of the expected GOP campaign, Langworthy said a vote for a “crazy liberal” like McMurray will lead to a Western New Yorker voting for the impeachment of President Trump.

Rep. Chris Collins will stand trial in 2020. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Another Republican source with knowledge of the situation who did not want to be identified said voters can expect the Collins treasury to finance an anti-McMurray message painting him as a liberal who is out of touch with a district that Trump carried by 24 points.

“The public knows the good, the bad, and the ugly about Chris Collins,” the source said. “The variable here is that they know nothing abut Nate McMurray. The $1 million-plus is a lot of money to tell the Nate McMurray story.”

Langworthy said he believes the 27th District, which touches eight counties south and east of Buffalo and Rochester, will remain in GOP control. He said its big Republican advantage will spur voters to retain Collins and look for an eventual replacement.

“I think the overwhelming number of voters in the 27th Congressional District do not want to see the country dragged through an impeachment trial,” he said, adding he will believe national Democrats are truly committed to McMurray when they start spending money on him.

Collins’ decision Monday also means that several Republicans vying to become the replacement candidate will sit on the sidelines – at least for now. They include Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., 2010 gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino, Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter, county Legislator Edward A. Rath III, state Sen. Robert G. Ortt and others.

Each could re-enter the political calculus, however, should Collins win the November election and leave office either through resignation or conviction on the criminal charges he faces and subsequent expulsion from the House. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would then have the option of calling a special election.

Collins faces charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and lying to a federal agent in connection with his involvement with Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm where he served as a director and the largest investor. His son, Cameron, faces similar charges, as does Stephen Zarsky of New Jersey, the father of Cameron Collins’ fiancee.

Prosecutors accused the congressman of hatching an insider stock trading scheme from his cellphone while attending a White House picnic in late June 2017. They say he received an email that night from Innate’s chief executive officer, telling him the firm’s experimental multiple sclerosis drug had failed in clinical trials. He’s accused of then relaying that information to his son, who then told others, allowing them to sell their stock before the news became public and thereby avoid huge losses.

News staff reporter Barbara O’Brien contributed to this report.

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