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'Stay-at-home' voters present big challenge for Chris Collins

The comforts of home could present an Election Day nightmare for the GOP in Chris Collins’ congressional district.

If substantial numbers of the 27th Congressional District’s 183,641 Republicans decide they will stay home or simply skip marking their ballot for Collins, following his August indictment on federal insider trading charges, even the party’s most partisan leaders recognize the potential dangers.

Republicans won’t vote for Democrat Nathan McMurray, the worriers say. But they also fear some Republicans will not vote for a candidate facing criminal charges, the possibility of conviction, and even expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Combined with an energized Democratic base, the "stay home" scenario could represent the best hope for McMurray in a district the GOP normally chalks up as an automatic victory.

“There’s no question about that,” Livingston County Republican Chairman John Pauer said about stay-at-home Republicans. “There are mixed feelings all over the place about this one.”

Pauer describes the Collins-McMurray contest as “very unique,” transcending the usual concerns about getting Republican voters to the polls. Collins and Republicans must drive home the importance of keeping the seat in GOP hands, he said, as well as the economic gains they say have accrued under President Trump.

“That’s the message, and the only thing we can do is energize our people and get them out there,” he said. “We’re working on that.

“This is by no means a normal get-out-the-vote effort, and I hope to not have to go through this again,” he added.

It all occurs as a new Siena Research Institute poll conducted for Spectrum News and released Tuesday showed Collins statistically tied with McMurray, 46 to 43 percent.

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

History provides a precedent for what could lie ahead. James J. Snyder, the Cattaraugus County Legislature chairman who also ran for Congress and served in President George H. W. Bush’s White House, recalls the Democratic landslide of 1974 following Watergate. Usually, he said, his Republicans captured their 17,000 or 18,000 votes for countywide offices while the Democrats managed 10,000 or 11,000. Under that scenario, the GOP scored its normal victories and life went on.

But everything changed in 1974.

“It was right after President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and the Democrats got their 10 or 11 thousand, but that’s all we got too,” Snyder said, noting the thousands of GOP faithful who never showed up at the polls.

“It wasn’t that they were voting for Democrats, it was that they weren’t voting,” he said. “We lost treasurer and clerk and everything down the line.”

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)

Forty-four years later, Republicans recognize similar possibilities – and more. Niagara County Republican Chairman Richard Andres fears “down ballot” candidates for local offices are also threatened if Republicans stay home and Democrats get energized.

“My concern from the beginning has been the effect down the ticket,” he said, noting the lack of competitive contests for various other seats may also depress turnout for the closer elections dependent on normally loyal Republicans.

Andres said the party will rely on the barrage of Collins television commercials emphasizing the need to preserve a Republican seat just as Democrats threaten to gain control of the House of Representatives.

“It’s bigger than Chris Collins, and that’s the message we want out there,” he said.

To that end, Republicans led by political consultant and CNN commentator Michael R. Caputo are scheduling former White House strategist Steve Bannon for a get-out-the-vote rally in Elma on Wednesday. The 4:30 p.m. event at the Jamison Road Fire Hall is designed to energize the base loyal to Trump in a race where continuing his policies is deemed crucial to GOP hopes.

Democrats hope for an opposite reaction, and are already rallying their base to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. On Oct. 11 the Western New York Area Labor Federation gathered hundreds of union workers at United Steelworkers 2603 in Hamburg to engage them in the Collins-McMurray race.

Richard Lipsitz, federation president, sees the contest as area labor’s top priority.

“It’s the biggest effort as a united labor movement since Tim Kennedy and Mark Poloncarz,” he said of past state Senate and county executive campaigns. “Our basic job is to get out the union vote and align ourselves this time with Nate McMurray. I sense real enthusiasm from our members and their families.”

A major labor commitment, Lipsitz explained, involves union workers ringing door bells, dropping literature in “labor walks,” and making phone calls on Election Day.

And throughout the remaining weeks of the campaign his troops will remind voters of the election’s unique circumstances.

“The current representative can’t serve his constituents in any way that makes sense if he’s under federal indictment,” Lipsitz said.

Not every Republican buys the "stay home" premise. Erie County Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy says GOP voters remain “motivated and enthused” for other races such as governor. He said opposition to Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo runs so high in the 27th Congressional District that voters are excited about supporting Republican Marc Molinaro.

He sees no early indications of low turnout in the number of people registering to vote or requests for absentee ballots. And he predicts more voters will trek to the polls this year than in the last gubernatorial election of 2014.

“With national politics in the forefront of everybody’s minds, we have a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “Voters are waiting to be heard.”

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