Voters who bother to listen to robocalls recently got a preview of the coming battle for the House seat in New York's 27th Congressional District between indicted Republican Rep. Chris Collins and a Democratic outsider that few had heard of before this year.
A menacing, mechanical male voice asks voters four questions about the Democratic candidate, Nate McMurray, accusing him — inaccurately — of "causing our trade deficits to double," backing organizations that want to repeal the Second Amendment and supporting House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Then the menacing voice asks just one question about Collins, saying — accurately — that "he was indicted for insider trading." A muffled voice ends by saying that "Central Market Research" conducted the poll, but it never says who paid for it, and the phone number given at the end of the call is disconnected.
This is what political pros refer to as a "push poll." It's not the kind of poll that Gallup and other reputable polling firms take to gauge public opinion. It's the kind of poll that partisan consultants use to slime the other side.
Like philosopher Thomas Hobbes' description of life in a lawless society, that robocall is "nasty, brutish and short."
And that's just how the race for Congress between Collins and McMurray is shaping up, too.
Collins and his allies — facing the difficulty of lauding the accomplishments of a congressman charged with multiple felonies — will try to define McMurray at the onset of the truncated seven-week campaign, sources said. In fact, that effort will begin Friday: Federal Communications Commission records show that the Collins campaign has already spent $36,610 for 81 ad spots on WGRZ through the rest of the month, along with $30,200 for 41 ad spots on WIVB.
Collins himself re-entered the race on Monday by attacking McMurray as part of "the radical left."
An Important Update pic.twitter.com/UHL1XNTKhw
— Chris Collins (@CollinsNY27) September 19, 2018
And Collins spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre lashed into McMurray as well when asked Thursday for a preview of the coming campaign.
"Voters have a clear choice between an admitted progressive, job destroyer and Nancy Pelosi acolyte like Nate McMurray, or a Trump Republican who will vote to continue growing the economy, protecting jobs and standing up for American workers," she said.
Meantime, McMurray vows to fight back hard against Collins as he has for months, on Twitter.
"The only federal building Collins belongs in is a penitentiary," McMurray said.
The only federal building Collins belongs in is a penitentiary.
Collins, you bossed and bullied your way through your entire life. It’s time for you to feel what it’s like to be on the other side. It’s time for accountability.
So listen to me carefully...
LOCK. HIM. UP.
— Nate McMurray for Congress (@Nate_McMurray) September 20, 2018
The expected nastiness takes root in several factors.
First and foremost, Collins has enough money — $1.3 million in his campaign account — to get as nasty as he wants as often as he wants.
"I certainly hope he will expend all of that money to hold that seat in Republican hands," Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said on Monday, when Collins reversed himself and vowed to stay on the ballot despite his indictment.
"I think it's very important that this seat stays in Republican hands because a vote for Nate McMurray is a vote to impeach the president," Langworthy added.
That's expected to be among the main themes of the Collins effort, but it's one that McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor, is anxious to debunk.
Calling Donald Trump's impeachment "the farthest thing from my mind," McMurray said: "I would hope it doesn't happen. It hasn't happened yet, but if a case is made to me, I will make a decision at that time."
But that anonymous robocall also likely foreshadows the issues that Collins or his surrogates will raise against McMurray.
It says McMurray's work as a lawyer in South Korea led to trade deals that hurt America — although McMurray says he worked with U.S. companies to help them sell products overseas.
It says McMurray is allied with groups that "support the repeal of the Second Amendment" — although McMurray says he supports the right to bear arms along with universal background checks for firearm purchases and a ban on "bump stocks," which allow semiautomatic weapons to fire faster.
The robocall also says McMurray voted for Pelosi in a primary when he was a student living in San Francisco. But McMurray says he has no memory of doing so, although he does recall voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, for governor of California.
Lastly, the robocall says McMurray supports a Canadian-style single-payer health system.
"Well, they got me on that one," McMurray conceded.
No one interviewed for this story said they knew who funded that push poll, which might have been paid for by one of the many mysteriously funded Republican groups who spend what's called "dark money" on congressional races.
It's called dark money because these political nonprofits long have paid for their ads through anonymous donations — but that's likely to change due to a Supreme Court ruling this week requiring them to disclose where they get their funds.
Peter Yacobucci, an associate professor of political science at SUNY Buffalo State, said he expects those conservative groups to spend big money in the Collins-McMurray race.
"They know it's a district they have to hold onto," said Yacobucci, who predicted that the attacks on McMurray will come fast and furious.
"It's going to be atrocious," he said. "They can say anything."
McMurray has plenty to say, too, but not much money with which to say it. He said he's gotten a six-figure burst in fundraising since Collins' indictment on Aug. 8, but the Democrat's total is still likely to pale in comparison to Collins'.
Progressive political nonprofits may weigh in on McMurray's behalf, but they've committed only $22 million to the 2018 races so far — $14 million less than conservative groups have.
Social media is free, though, so McMurray tweets with wild abandon about Collins' alleged crimes and his own progressive policies — which Republicans contend are out of step with the deeply conservative 27th district.
McMurray has also been barnstorming every corner of the sprawling district, which stretches from Buffalo's suburbs to Rochester's.
All of that, he hopes, will counter the big money that Republicans will spend to try to take him down.
"They're going to douse this region with money to try to hold this seat," McMurray said. "It's going to be very hard to fight against. It's going to be a tidal wave."