A less than festive mood greeted the horde of Buffalo and Rochester reporters descending upon Erie County Republican Headquarters a few days ago.
Chairman Nick Langworthy wore a grim face after spending six weeks grappling with “the problem” – how to replace Rep. Chris Collins on the November ballot following Collins' Aug. 8 indictment on insider trading charges. Now it had all come to naught for Langworthy and company.
Collins had just informed GOP leaders that he would remain on the ballot after all. His criminal defense lawyers in New York City were now calling the shots – not local Republicans.
Langworthy expressed his feelings in diplomatic code. He said he was “disappointed.” Collins had thrown the leaders “a curve ball.” He believed the path to replacing Collins on the ballot was “crystal clear.”
“You can’t help but feel like a jilted groom at the altar,” he said.
It was not supposed to be this way. Collins’ 27th Congressional District remains the most Republican of any in New York State – maybe in the entire Northeast. President Trump carried the district by 24 points less than two years ago, with all indications that nothing has changed.
In a year when Democrats pose a real threat to GOP control of the House of Representatives, the Collins district just a few weeks ago represented the safest of the safe.
Now everything is different. Now a sitting congressman under federal indictment says he will “actively campaign” for re-election and remain in the House should he win. What more could a Democratic opponent ask for?
Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray, the challenger, sensed the potential for Collins’ legal problems. But he was willing all along to take him on, even sans indictment.
It all remains a major challenge for McMurray, even if the Cook Political Report continues downgrading its forecast. The district now “leans Republican” when it should have ranked somewhere between sure thing and slam dunk. But the district remains Republican, and other members of Congress like Staten Island’s Michael Grimm have won while under indictment (he later resigned).
Now Collins shows signs of coming back to life while lying low since early August. Already he unveils a campaign that paints his opponent as “extremist” and a champion of liberal causes who will vote to impeach the president should the Dems win control. It’s not a bad strategy in the ruby red 27th.
Collins also appears ready to prove his innocence via the campaign.
“I will fight on two fronts,” he said last week. “I will work to ensure the 27th Congressional District remains in Republican hands, while I fight to clear my good name in the courts.”
But a jury – not voters – will eventually determine the congressman’s fate. And if he is convicted, he could face expulsion from the House. Even if he is acquitted, he still faces a separate House ethics probe that poses similar possibilities.
Real questions remain: What does “actively campaign” mean? Does he spend his $1.3 million campaign treasury, as Langworthy demanded? Does he appear at fire halls and Rotary meetings? Does he debate McMurray?
And a big-time question: Does he ask his pal the president to stump the district on his behalf? Trump has promised to burn up the campaign trail this fall – does that include a rally in Batavia or Geneseo?
Collins served as Trump’s champion on national television more than 100 times throughout the campaign and early White House days. And if the incumbent is to base his campaign on a “keep the House Republican” theme even while under indictment, he might as well ask the top Republican to join them.
Will Trump expose himself to that kind of criticism? Will his famous loyalty to friends win out?
Collins and McMurray are about to enter the national spotlight. Few other political contests throughout America feature these circumstances. And it wasn’t supposed to be this way.