The obvious became official Wednesday: Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican under indictment on felony insider trading charges, will not debate his Democratic opponent, Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray.
A day after Collins did not appear at either the St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute Annual Political Debate or a candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara, Collins spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre confirmed that Collins won't be debating.
"The difference between Congressman Collins and Nate McMurray couldn't be any clearer and no debate will change that," Baldassarre said in a statement. "Voters have a choice between a candidate who supports President Trump and Making America Great Again, or a candidate who's bought and paid for by Nancy Pelosi and her progressive machine."
McMurray – who has said he will not support Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, to become House speaker – was not surprised by Collins' decision.
"It’s typical of millionaires like Collins to look down on voters like us, and he just doesn’t have the backbone or character to talk with students or debate," McMurray said. "Eleven felony counts, out on bail and a flight risk, and he just makes himself more of an embarrassment to our community with his cowardice."
Collins has said he is innocent of the charges against him, which stem from a cell phone call he made to his son Cameron from the White House lawn in June 2017. Prosecutors say Collins told his son insider information about a company they were both invested in, allowing Cameron and others to sell their stock and save hundreds of thousands of dollars before the bad news broke and the stock price collapsed.
McMurray has maintained that Collins would not debate because his criminal lawyers would not want him to do so.
"They were never going to agree to a debate because of how it's going to look with him on stage and me asking about his record," McMurray said.
But Baldassarre said there's no connection between the criminal case against Collins and the campaign's decision to bypass debates.
"Lawyers have nothing to do with this decision," she said.
Collins' refusal to debate stands in contrast from what Baldassarre said previously.
"With more than a month left until the election, the campaign is considering all debate options and looks forward to discussing Nate McMurray's record," she said in early October.
A week earlier, Baldassarre said: "We're considering all the debate invitations that have been extended to the campaign. Once the campaign makes a decision, we will reach out to the folks who invited us."
But Ted Lina, who teaches government at St. Joe's and who has helped students there organize debates for more than 30 years, said he tried reaching out to Collins in multiple ways but never heard back.
Lina called Collins' congressional offices "multiple times" to extend the debate invitation, and also dialed what he was told was Collins' campaign headquarters.
"I think the Collins campaign office is just an answering machine," Lina said.
Lina still thought Collins might show up for Tuesday's event, so the stage was ready with a spot for Collins to sit between McMurray and Reform Party candidate Larry Piegza. But that chair and podium remained empty.
Hours later, Collins failed to appear at the League of Women Voters event in East Aurora. Joan T. Parks, the group's local president, said she, too, called Collins' congressional office and left a message on his campaign office voice mail, but never got a reply.
The McMurray campaign has been pestering Collins about a debate since February. McMurray himself buttonholed Collins twice to challenge him to debate, while the Democrat's online supporters have been hectoring Collins with the #DebateNate hashtag.
But it's common for incumbents to avoid debating if they can, said Jacob Neiheisel, an associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo who studies campaigns.
"The idea is that if you are up in the race, you don't need to take an opportunity to put yourself in a jam," Neiheisel said.
However, Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, did debate his Democratic opponent, Tracy Mitrano.
Collins, as an indicted member of Congress, faces some special challenges when considering to debate.
No matter what his spokewoman said, Collins' lawyers may not want him to debate, Neiheisel said.
"The optics of that are terrible," he said..
Then again, when a debate is held and a candidate is represented only by an empty podium, "the optics are still bad," Neiheisel added.