Rep. Chris Collins this week gave his first interviews since re-entering the race for Congress three weeks ago, indicating on radio station WBEN that he hopes to win re-election and continue to serve in Congress while fighting criminal insider trading charges.
But when asked by The Buffalo News if Collins would commit to serving in the next Congress — and vow that he wouldn't resign once re-elected — his campaign spokesman would not answer the question.
Collins' reemergence in interviews with WBEN and WIVB-TV (Channel 4) highlighted a busy Wednesday in the race for the House seat in New York's 27th district — one that also featured the release of an internal Democratic poll that showed Collins, a Republican, tied in the race with Democrat Nathan McMurray.
But Collins' comments on WBEN stood out, because that's where he made his case for re-election.
Asked by host Michael Caputo — a Republican consultant — what he would say to Republican voters who are reluctant to vote for a indicted member of Congress, Collins said: "My message is they have to vote, they have to vote for me to keep our seat Republican — a strong Trump supporter for New York 27 that can take any and all New York 27 issues to the administration, get an open dialogue with the department heads. Whether it's Flight 3407 or you name it, I have that influence. That will continue."
Of course, Collins' influence couldn't continue if he were to win re-election and then resign. And that's exactly what happened to former Rep. Michael Grimm.
A Staten Island Republican, Grimm won re-election in November 2014 while fighting federal charges of fraud, tax evasion and perjury. But he pleaded guilty to a single count of tax fraud on Dec. 23 of that year and announced his resignation eight days later, before he was even sworn in for his next term.
On WBEN, Collins called the charges he's facing "a burden I will be carrying through this election."
"Remember that you are innocent until proven guilty," he added. "I am confident that I will be exonerated, but that's going to take time."
Nevertheless, Collins campaign spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre would not reply to emails and a phone call from The Buffalo News seeking a commitment from the congressman that he would serve in Congress if re-elected. And while he has spoken with WIVB twice and WBEN once since his indictment, Collins has not yet committed to an interview with The Buffalo News.
McMurray has speculated that if Collins wins another term in Congress, he may offer to resign as leverage for a plea deal with prosecutors.
"He's going to cling to this position as a life preserver," McMurray said.
On WBEN, though, Collins said: "I'm going to work to protect this seat for Donald Trump, to make sure he's got a Congress to work with him and not against him. And that's the difference between my opponent Nate McMurray and myself. Everyone knows I'm President Trump's strongest supporter in Washington, and most people know that Nate McMurray is not only a Clinton supporter, an Obama supporter, but absolutely hates Donald Trump, calls him a clown and a con artist."
What's more, "we need to make sure that New York 27 stays Republican because the control of Congress could flip on a single seat," added Collins, arguing that a vote for McMurray would be a vote to return House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to the speakership.
McMurray — who harshly criticized Trump early in his campaign — has repeatedly said he would not support Pelosi's bid to return as House speaker.
Asked about Collins' comments, McMurray said: "His only strategy is to say a bunch of scare words."
On Aug. 8, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged Collins with fraud, conspiracy and lying to a federal agent. Prosecutors say that he hatched an insider-trading scheme when he called his son Cameron to give him bad news he had just heard from the CEO of Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm that claimed both Collins and his son as major shareholders.
Prosecutors said Cameron Collins started dumping his shares in Innate the next day, as did Stephen Zarsky, Cameron Collins' prospective son-in-law. Cameron Collins and Zarsky also face criminal charges in the case.
On WBEN, Caputo said he had spent plenty of time in Wyoming County recently and encountered some farmers who were reluctant to vote for Collins because of the charges against him.
"I'm concerned as a Republican and a supporter of yours," Caputo said. "They can't pull a lever. They're kind of dejected about this."
Caputo's concern dovetails with the results of an internal Democratic poll the McMurray campaign released Wednesday, which showed Collins and McMurray tied with 42 percent of the vote. Reform Party candidate Larry Piegza had 6 percent, while 10 percent of voters remained undecided.
“This proves what we’ve been seeing on the ground for months: We can win," McMurray said.
Tulchin Research, a Democratic polling firm from San Francisco that served as Sen. Bernie Sanders' pollster in the 2016 presidential campaign, conducted the poll of 400 voters in the district between last Saturday and Monday.
The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, also found that 90 percent of those surveyed had heard about Collins' indictment, with 57 percent saying they had heard "a lot" about it.
Asked for comment on the poll, Baldassarre, the Collins spokeswoman, said: “It’s not a surprise that this race is close. Voters have a clear choice between an avowed progressive who is open to impeaching President Trump, or a Trump Republican who will stand with the President and continue delivering for working families in NY-27."
McMurray has called Trump's possible impeachment "the farthest thing from my mind."