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Nate McMurray may have lost – but he's never stopped running for Congress

Democrat Nathan McMurray lost his race to represent the voters of New York's 27th Congressional District by a mere 1,087 votes back in November – but ever since, he's continued campaigning as if he represents them.

More than two months after he conceded the race to Republican Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence, McMurray's Hamburg campaign headquarters remains open. He's planning a town hall event just outside Collins' Geneseo office on Feb. 23, as well as a "Before You Run 101" boot camp for prospective Democratic candidates the same day in Naples, at the eastern edge of the 27th District.

What's more, McMurray continues tweeting several times a day, mixing progressive calls to battle with personal reflections and an occasional dose of pure silliness, just as he did during the campaign. And, just as he did last fall, McMurray taunts Collins online. On Friday, for example, he called Collins "literally an invisible congressman" and added: "How long must we wait? Please resign."

In a recent interview, McMurray made clear why he's doing this. He said Collins – who is fighting felony insider trading charges in federal court in Manhattan – could quit at any time, prompting a special election for the seat. Or Collins could survive his February 2020 criminal trial and run for a fifth term that November. And in either case, McMurray wants to be ready.

"I came much too close to push pause," said McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor. "I never even considered it. I want to complete what we started."

That's sounds like a campaign announcement for an election that may be as much as 21 months away – and it may even be a campaign that McMurray doesn't get to run.

If Collins were to resign before his term is up, the seven Democratic county committees with territory in the district would choose the party's nominee for a special election. And Jeremy Zellner – the Erie County Democratic chairman, whose committee would have the most say in choosing a nominee – said McMurray would not automatically get the nomination.

"My thought is that we still have a while to go before that race," Zellner said. "There could be other candidates you don't know yet, and some of them could be intriguing."

While that's standard-issue political talk for any party chairman in such a situation, Zellner and the other party chairs would have plenty of reasons to consider McMurray as well as other candidates.

Democratic leaders in the rural parts of the district, which sprawls all the way to Rochester's western suburbs, remain enamored with McMurray for a reason: A candidate who built his campaign from the grassroots, McMurray motivated Democrats in some of the state's more Republican counties to get involved in his effort, as well as other races.

"A lot of people in my county are still very excited about Nate," said Judith A. Hunter, the Democratic chairwoman in Livingston County. "I admire very much what he's doing."

But McMurray's 2018 effort could have been better. He acknowledged an aversion to making calls to raise campaign cash, and he also shepherded an effort that employed four campaign managers and at least 17 consultants – unusually high numbers for a congressional campaign.

Inside the McMurray campaign: charisma and chaos

That being the case, some senior Democrats privately pine for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz – who is up for re-election this year – to run for Collins' seat next time there is a congressional election.

Asked about that possibility, Poloncarz said: "I am running for county executive, and I really haven't even thought about the 27th because we're putting together the team associated with my re-election campaign."

Poloncarz said he's pleased to have the opportunity to lead the county through times such as the recent blizzard. But when asked if he would rule out a congressional race, he said:  "I don't think you rule out anything, but right now, I don't live in the district. ... I'd like to consider myself a fairly progressive individual, and it's definitely a much less progressive district. I don't rule anything out, but I don't have any intention of doing it right now."

Bob McCarthy: Poloncarz v. Collins, round 2

That leaves McMurray as the only virtually declared candidate for an election that may come in November 2020 or that may come much earlier.

"I would not be surprised if at any moment Chris Collins resigns and says, 'Here's the plea deal,' " McMurray said.

Collins, however, rejected a plea deal before his arrest last August. Collins maintains that he is innocent of the fraud and conspiracy charges he is facing and vows to fight them in court.

The political guru behind all of Collins' past campaigns, Christopher M. Grant, didn't think much of McMurray's seemingly permanent campaign.

"National Democrats really didn't believe Nate McMurray could win in 2018, even after the race was handed to him on a silver platter," Grant said. "This time, they at least need a candidate who has a better strategy than creepy Facebook videos and a full-throated embrace of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's socialist agenda."

There's a lot to unpack in what Grant said, and McMurray is happy to unpack it.

He complained mightily about the long-delayed backing he got last year from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But this year, McMurray has already traveled to Washington to meet with DCCC officials and other top Democrats.

"I received a lot of positive feedback," McMurray said. "I know they believe this is a winnable seat."

The DCCC said that much last week, putting New York's 27th District on its initial list of targeted seats for 2020.

As for Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Democratic socialist and congresswoman from the Bronx, McMurray proudly noted he's been in touch with her since her election.

"She is as engaging and interesting as she seems," he said.

By no means is McMurray the only losing Democratic candidate to remain politically active after the election. Several other New York Democrats have essentially continued campaigning since their loss. Tracy Mitrano, the Penn Yan Democrat who lost to Republican Rep. Tom Reed of Corning by 8.4 percentage points, still has periodic media conference calls in anticipation of running again.

But no one is running quite like McMurray, who seems as determined as ever to get under Collins' skin.

Highlighting the point that Collins has always refused to do town hall meetings with his constituents, McMurray is planning to hold town hall meetings of his own this year in every county in the district, starting with the one in Geneseo on Feb. 23.

"We're still fully engaged," McMurray said. "We're going to set up a tent and do it right in front of his (Collins') office."

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