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Bob McCarthy: The race that wasn't supposed to be

Give Democrat Nate McMurray credit.

The Grand Island supervisor who challenged Republican Chris Collins in the 27th Congressional District finally switched off his campaign’s life support on Monday. A count of outstanding ballots confirmed he could not overcome Collins’ slim, 1,000-vote lead.

He conceded, strongly hinted he will run again for office, and promised to start a new political organization to act as a watchdog on the process.

It’s over now. But here are three reasons why McMurray’s unsuccessful effort ranked as one of the country’s most fascinating:

• McMurray recognized the potential early on.

Along with a few other Democrats, McMurray eagerly volunteered to challenge a powerful and well-funded incumbent in the most Republican district in all of New York. Washington Democrats sniffed indifference. Nobody gave him a chance.

Even then, however, McMurray sensed that a congressional inquiry into Collins’ Australian investments could morph into something more.

“I read the Office of Congressional Ethics findings and thought Mr. Collins had severe ethical problems,” he said a few days ago during a campaign post-mortem. “I thought the whole thing might unravel for him.”

Big names passed on the race. Then McMurray muscled out other Dems to gain the endorsement of party leaders, long before Collins’ Aug. 8 indictment on insider trading charges. He was the guy.

• McMurray defied Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s machine.

It’s not easy to survive a direct challenge from the forces of New York’s most powerful politician, but back in April, McMurray did and won.

Cuomo allies, you recall, attempted at a very late date on the political calendar to replace McMurray as the congressional candidate with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. She was the district’s former congresswoman whom Collins beat – barely – in 2012. Those allies really didn’t care about the 27th District, but were concerned that a serious primary challenge to Hochul for lieutenant governor posed a problem for Cuomo.

“Many, many people say she will be a stronger candidate than Nate McMurray,” the governor said in Buffalo in April.

McMurray did not blink in a stare down with the governor. And during the campaign, Hochul – still popular in the district though now more in sync with statewide Democrats – offered important support.

“She was the one senior Democratic leader who showed me kindness and empathy and was with me on the campaign trail,” McMurray says. “She could have thrown me under the bus when the governor wanted to, and she didn’t. I think she is a great person.”

The former candidate thinks the Cuomo team’s effort helped him in a district where the governor wins no popularity contests. And, he points out, Hochul won her own lieutenant governor primary too.

• McMurray almost won.

In a district that GOP leaders originally counted as an easy win, McMurray lost by just over 1,000 votes. The need to spend lots of money and the very idea of a close race? That was never supposed to happen.

“We had the largest partisan swing for any first-time candidate in the country,” he says, ticking off a list of places that hardly ever fall into the Democratic column but did on Nov. 6.

McMurray notes that national Democrats ignored his race until the end days, even when polls showed him close. He thinks he might have pulled off the most improbable of upsets had they intervened earlier.

Some Democrats say McMurray ran a far from perfect campaign. They say he ignored advice, presided over an unstable campaign staff, made rookie mistakes and failed at fund raising. Maybe fixing those problems might have helped too.

But the former candidate now vows he learned a lot and will remain on the scene, working with his new “Fight Like Hell” organization that he envisions as a watchdog to hound Collins.

You don’t come that close without trying again. Next time, it might not be the 27th District, but McMurray says he’ll be back.

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