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Chris Collins' indictment divides voters – and defines Nate McMurray's race

Frieda Sabo and Jackie Miller take opposite sides of an argument that's sweeping New York's 27th Congressional District.

Sabo, like many Republicans in this deep-red swath of suburbs and small towns between Buffalo and Rochester, wants to send Rep. Chris Collins back to Congress.

"I always thought Chris Collins was a pretty good guy," said Sabo, 86, who dismisses the felony insider trading case against the Clarence Republican as the kind of scandal many politicians endure.

Miller sees things very differently.

"I wouldn't vote for Collins if he were the last man on earth," said Miller, a 76-year-old Democrat who, like Sabo, lives in the Orleans County town of Barre.

This difference of opinion among these two old friends is nothing unusual in the 27th District.

Neighbors Jackie Miller, left, and Frieda Sabo visit during the Apple Festival hosted by the United Methodist Church of the Abundant Harvest in Knowlesville. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Dozens of interviews with voters there show that many Republicans, of every background, still support Collins.

Meanwhile, disgruntled Republicans and independents say Democrat Nathan McMurray offers them something an indicted incumbent can't: real representation.

Collins appears to maintain an edge because so many Republicans fear that losing this seat could mean losing control of the House of Representatives.

But Democrats say they hope to obliterate that edge with enthusiasm for an earnest, accessible candidate who, unlike Collins, isn't out on bail.

'Everyone is innocent until proven guilty'

The demographics that define this district come alive along U.S. Route 20A. Along the way you'll see dairy farms, villages that range from quaint to shabby, and pickup trucks – many with National Rifle Association bumper stickers.

Republicans outnumber Democrats by 40,000 in this district. A lot of people stick by their guns here, and not just along Route 20A.

In Blasdell, Collins appeared at a rod and gun club earlier this month to speak to the 1791 Society PAC, which supports gun rights. He touted his Second Amendment Guarantee Act, a stalled bill that would, if passed, negate New York's controversial SAFE Act.

"He got multiple rounds of applause," said Frank J. Panasuk, the group's president.

Asked about Collins' arrest, Panasuk – a retired Town of Hamburg police detective – noted that Collins didn't personally benefit from the alleged insider trading scheme that, according to prosecutors, saved his son Cameron $570,900.

"We have a constitutional right: Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," Panasuk added.

Frank Panasuk fires an SKS rifle on the range at the Blasdell Rod and Gun Club. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Several gun rights supporters who greeted McMurray icily at a diner in Hamburg recently are sticking with Collins, too.

Chico Macchioni said he didn't think much of the case against his congressman.

"All politicians are crooks," said Macchioni, 83, of Hamburg.

Macchioni and his friends remain more focused on Collins' support for gun ownership.

"You take away our guns, you take away our country," said Joe Pracitto, 77, of Hamburg.

And it's not just gun rights supporters who stand strong behind Collins.

"All I have to say is that Collins is for President Trump, and I'm for Trump," said Craig Botzenhart, 48, of East Aurora.

Asked if he is concerned that Collins might resign in disgrace even if he wins re-election, Botzenhart said no.

"We don't worry because we know we'll have another Republican to replace him" in a special election, he said.

'He is supposed to be setting an example, and he's not'

Collins' problem is that plenty of voters just can't bring themselves to vote for someone under indictment. Some, like Betty Burley, saw their thoughts on Collins turn on a dime the day he got arrested.

Collins was supposed to visit East Hill Farms in Perry, where Burley and her husband, Gary, manage a herd of 700 cows, the week the congressman was indicted. Now, it seems he’s unwelcome there.

"He is supposed to be setting an example, and he's not," Burley said.

Betty Burley and her family run East Hill Farms in Warsaw. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Shifting attitudes like that have made this a competitive race in a district that no Democrat should have a chance to win.

The Cook Political Report says Republicans have a natural 11 point edge in the district, and its demographics show why. Census data shows that 92 percent of the district's population is white. The median age here is 44.2  more than four years older than the national average. Some 7.7 percent of the district's residents are veterans, 1.5 times the statewide rate.

Despite such GOP advantages, a recent Spectrum News/Siena College poll found Collins with only a 3 point lead, within the margin of error.

McMurray has worked hard to win over disaffected Republicans such as Cecily Molak. A retired lawyer from Honeoye Falls, in Monroe County, Molak filed an House ethics complaint against Collins 18 months before he got arrested. Later she met McMurray and came away so impressed that she founded a group called “Republicans for Nate.”

"He seemed very middle-of-the-road, not the ultra-liberal progressive person I expected," Molak said.

Of course, Collins’ travails help McMurray’s cause, too.

"If Congressman Collins had an honorable bone in his body, he would have resigned from his position the moment he knew the indictment was coming," said Greg Van Laeken, 46, a Republican from Canandaigua. "How can he possibly serve the constituents of the NY-27th while trying to keep himself out of prison?"

'That seat needs to stay red'

Few people at last Sunday's GOP dinner in Lima, in Livingston County, wanted to discuss their congressman' s legal problems. Still, many defended Chris Collins – not the man, but what he stands for, which is keeping the House in GOP hands.

"I think it's important that we hold onto this seat as a Republican seat," said Jennifer Noto, 41, a former state and federal prosecutor from Geneseo. "I really think a lot of Republicans in Livingston County feel this way."

Kevin Van Allen, a 40-year-old lawyer from Avon, certainly does.

"That seat needs to stay red," Van Allen said.

Die-hard Republicans say this knowing that control of the House could depend on the Collins-McMurray race.

The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball rank this as a competitive race that "leans Republican." All three predict Democrats will win a majority of House seats – especially if Republicans lose deep-red districts such as New York's 27th.

That being the case, some Republicans here put a unique spin on Collins' troubles, blaming politics even though the prosecutor who brought charges against him is a Republican appointed by Trump.

Asked about Collins' indictment, Margie Wallin, 76, of Geneseo said: "You have to wonder who's behind it. I think that the Democrats would do anything to help themselves."

'Naters gotta Nate'

There's a bumper car seen on some cars in the district now. It says: "Naters gotta Nate."

And it says something about the excitement McMurray stirred in the Democratic base.

"He is a candidate that gives me hope," said Andy Muldoon, 27, of Blasdell, who has chatted with McMurray on Twitter.

In addition to building a huge online community, McMurray has barnstormed every town in the district – something even Republicans say Collins has never done.

"I’ve met Nate numerous times and what strikes me the most about him is his genuine nature," said Katie Webster, a 45-year-old mother of three from Clarence.

Webster seems cut from the cloth of the typical McMurray voter. Plenty of suburban moms campaign for him. The Siena poll found McMurray performing better in Erie County than elsewhere. And the poll found him with a double-digit lead among college-educated voters, while Collins had a 13-point edge with those without a college degree. The bad news for McMurray is that only 30.4 percent of district residents have a college degree.

And whether they have one or not, some rock-ribbed Republicans object to the inroads a Democrat is making in the district.

Teresa Kaczyinski, a 40-year-old mother of three from Alden, found that out while joining other McMurray supporters on an Alden street corner last week to wave their campaign signs at the cars passing by.

She counted 90 waves, 58 honks, 10 thumbs up, seven thumbs down, four middle fingers, two yard sign requests, one "Chris Collins" yell, one pumping fist and "one car veering towards us in a threatening way."

Given such experiences, McMurray volunteers such as Eric Baker of Livonia resign themselves to the realities of their district.

"Nate is going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to win," said Baker, 68.

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