Rep. Chris Collins refuses to say whether he will resign or continue in Congress should he win reelection on Nov. 6.
A day after announcing he will remain a candidate despite his indictment on insider trading charges, spokeswoman Sarah Minkel on Tuesday said Collins will not comment on his course of action. As a result, voters asked to retain the 27th Congressional District for Republicans by supporting Collins will not know if they are casting ballots for a full-time congressman who will serve while under indictment or a placeholder before a 2019 special election.
While Republicans appear split on how the incumbent should proceed, Democrats including Collins' opponent Nate McMurray are furious over Collins' refusal to answer basic questions about his campaign and his future.
"It's clear that what he'll do is whatever is in his best interest at the moment," said McMurray, the Grand Island supervisor.
Collins' stand highlights "a lack of accountability and a shamelessness that's almost unbelievable," McMurray added, noting that it's "very unfair" for voters not to know whether the incumbent plans to resign or continue to serve in Congress while under indictment.
GOP leaders, including Erie County Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, are still reeling from Collins' Monday decision to remain on the ballot. The congressman had previously pledged to cooperate with county leaders in finding a way to replace him with another candidate.
Now they are dealing with a new and unexpected reality, even in New York's most Republican congressional district.
"I believe that if he stays on the ballot he's got to be an active candidate," Langworthy said. "And in order to be successful, people need to know you will be there as a member of Congress. I have not spoken with him, but I do not expect any pledge to step aside after his election."
Langworthy said he now expects Collins to run as an active candidate, including moving around the district, participating in debates and forums, and discussing the issues. He also acknowledged that course will prove difficult for a candidate under federal indictment.
Collins has said he is innocent and intends to fight the federal charges.
Meanwhile, top Republican figures who had announced candidacies to replace Collins on the ballot offered varying opinions on what he should do regarding his campaign and elected office.
"He's got to tell the people the truth," said developer Carl P. Paladino, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor and a contender for the party nod that will now not happen. "Otherwise, what will bring out Republicans to vote?
"A promise that he will give up his seat and resign is what's critical," he added.
Paladino also noted that when Collins suspended his campaign on Aug. 11, he promised to cooperate with party leaders in whatever was necessary to preserve the seat for the GOP. The current "mess," he said, stems from lawyers' advice.
"They got in the way here," he said. "The lawyers overwhelmed and scared him."
But others who were vying to replace Collins on the ballot before Monday are now urging him to keep the seat.
"I'm confident Congressman Collins will win and continue to fight for the president's agenda in Washington," said Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., the county comptroller. "If he wins, he serves. It's as simple as that."
Mychajliw used words already dominating the talking points of most Republican leaders as they portray the race against McMurray.
"It's either a radical, liberal extremist or Congressman Collins," he said. "It's either the Trump agenda or impeachment on Day One."
Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter of Clarence, another Republican considered a potential Collins replacement, believes the congressman can still win his election, retain his seat and fight the charges in federal court.
"Why would he make the decision to stay on the ballot if he just turns around and resigns?" Walter asked. "What he should have done is get off the ballot and give 27th District voters a better choice."
State Sen. Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, another leading contender formerly vying for the replacement nomination, said the priority should be keeping the seat in GOP hands.
"If he is on the ballot and he is elected, then ideally he should serve until he can't do the job," he said, pointing to the possibility of an all-consuming trial or that he is found guilty and expelled from the House.
"Voters would have elected him to represent the district, and for the stakes on impeachment if Democrats take control," Ortt added.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Collins has a responsibility to state his intentions.
"He has to be straight with voters between now and November if he expects anyone to vote for him," he said. "This is being disingenuous with voters and I think he has to answer to them."
Collins isn't alone in not wanting to talk about his campaign.
Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Congressional Campaign Committee, failed to return phone calls regarding whether that official GOP fundraising committee would come to Collins' aid. Brian Walsh, who runs America First Action SuperPAC — which funds GOP lawmakers who back President Trump's agenda — also didn't return a phone call. And Mike Byerly, a spokesman for another key Republican group, the Congressional Leadership Fund, refused to comment on Collins' race.
Other Republican sources said, though, that it would be unlikely the GOP would spend money to boost Collins. In particular, the NRCC — which collects dues from GOP members of Congress in hopes of giving campaign aid to the lawmakers who need it most — probably would not want to donate to an indicted Republican when dozens of other unindicted lawmakers are clamoring for help, too.
"I can't imagine them getting involved in that," said one GOP political official in Washington who asked not to be identified by name.
That means if Collins is going to get outside help, it's likely to come in the form of "dark money" — funding by organizations that don't disclose their donors and, in some cases, even their identity.
In fact, that's already happening. Robocalls to residents in the district recently posed a "poll" about McMurray that included highly misleading questions about him. One blamed him for working in Asia on trade deals that caused "thousands of U.S. jobs" to be shipped overseas. Another said he would vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker, even though McMurray has said Democrats need new leadership.
McMurray said he expects such stealth attacks to continue throughout the campaign.
"It's going to be very difficult to fight that," he said.