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Fundraising, poll show Nate McMurray picking up speed in race against Collins

WASHINGTON — Two of the essentials of American politics — money and momentum — now seem to be headed in the direction of the Democrat running for Congress in New York State's most heavily Republican congressional district.

Nathan McMurray, the Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence in the state's 27th congressional district, Tuesday reported an even larger financial haul than what he had hinted at last week.

On top of that, the first independent poll in the district Tuesday showed Collins with a statistically insignificant 3-point lead, within the survey's margin of error.

“We always knew this would be a close race, and this poll shows that it’s neck and neck," McMurray said. "But our TV ads went on the air yesterday, after this poll was conducted; our grassroots support is strong, and as more voters tune in to the race and learn that they have a real choice, we’re more and more confident."

Money and momentum first started coming McMurray's way in mid-August, after federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged Collins with felony insider trading. Collins denies the charges.

Collins fundraising plummets after insider trading indictment

A week after McMurray said his campaign pulled in more than $475,000 between July and September, he filed a report with the Federal Election Commission that showed his actual fundraising total for the quarter was $519,543. Collins, who suspended his campaign after his indictment only to rejoin the race in mid-September, raised only $33,755.

But Collins, a prolific fundraiser throughout his six years in Congress, maintained a huge lead over McMurray in cash on hand as of Sept. 30. While Collins had more than $1 million left to spend in the campaign's final weeks, McMurray had only $433,558.

McMurray's fundraising increased rapidly late in the third quarter, with the bulk of his money coming from small donors. Some 5,700 people donated to McMurray's effort, with the average donor contributing $70.

In contrast, Collins reported only three individual donations from within his district in the quarter, totaling $80.

Nevertheless, the Collins campaign sought to use McMurray's fundraising against him, noting that he raised $2,700 from a political committee allied with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, $2,000 from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and $1,000 from comedian Rosie O"Donnell.

"Once again, Nate McMurray shows us where his true loyalties lie,” said Collins campaign spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre. “He lies and pretends to be a man of the people, but behind the scenes, he's begged for support from Nancy Pelosi's dark money groups and is proud to be endorsed by progressive labor unions tied to Governor Cuomo."

The first independent poll in the district made it clear, though, that McMurray is drawing support from beyond those core Democratic groups.

The Spectrum News/Siena College poll found that Collins leads McMurray by a margin of 46 to 43 percent in the survey of 490 likely voters. The margin of error in the poll was plus or minus 4.7 percentage points, meaning that in statistical terms, the race is a dead heat.

“Republican Collins holds a narrow 3-point lead over Democrat McMurray in a district that has more than 40,000 more Republicans than Democrats, a district that favors Republicans maintaining control of the House by 18 points, and a district that gives President Trump an 18-point net positive job approval rating," said Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg.

The poll found that nearly half the voters surveyed — 49 percent — view Collins negatively.

McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor, remains largely unknown. Some 48 percent of those surveyed said that either they had no opinion of McMurray or that they didn't want to answer the question.

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)

What's more, McMurray appears to have room to make up the narrow gap between him and Collins. The survey found that 10 percent of voters either said they don't know who they will vote for or refused to answer the question. Larry Piegza, a Hamburg businessman who is running as a pro-Trump candidate on the Reform Party line, drew only 1 percent in the poll.

But McMurray faces a huge hurdle in the race: the wide margin by which voters in the district said they favor keeping the House in Republican control.

Republicans have an 8-percentage-point enrollment edge in the district, which connects the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs via the farmland in between. In addition, the district's Independents tend to lean Republican: according to the poll, Independents favor continued Republican control of the House by a seven-point margin.

Siena pollsters surveyed the district between Oct. 6 and 11, meaning most of the poll was conducted before Oct. 11, the day Collins' indictment drew heavy news coverage again thanks to a judge's decision to set the trial date in the lawmaker's criminal case for February 2020.

The survey found the race too close to call all across the district. McMurray held a statistically insignificant 1-point lead in Erie County, where Collins, who lives in Clarence, served as county executive before moving to Congress. Collins has a tenuous 4-point edge across the rest of the district.

Collins remains the favorite in the race, given its heavily Republican enrollment.

But McMurray's odds are improving. FiveThirtyEight.com, one of the nation's leading political prognosticators, Tuesday trimmed Collins' odds of winning to 71.9 percent. Only 10 days ago, the website gave Collins a 94.8 percent chance of winning.

Greenburg, the Siena pollster, predicted a close race.

“This will come down to turnout," he said. "This is certainly not a headache national and local Republicans had been counting on just a few short months ago.”

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