It took about 15 minutes Monday for the 27th Congressional District succession scramble to catapult into its next phase following the resignation of Rep. Chris Collins, with as many as six Republicans vying for the nomination.
But after the post was suddenly vacated as a result of a Collins plea deal expected to unfold Tuesday in a Manhattan courtroom, two key figures will soon determine what happens in the days and weeks ahead.
The first is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who must decide whether to call a special election sometime early in the new year. If he does (as in May 2011 following the February 2011 resignation of Rep. Chris Lee in the same district), Republican party leaders will choose from a pack of potential successors already campaigning for the job.
That would mean no primary, at least for the special election. And it would mean leaders of the eight-county district would be lobbied extensively in their roles as kingmakers.
The other is David Bellavia, the Army veteran of Iraq and Medal of Honor winner who has never hinted interest in the seat, but who remains the favorite by his mere presence in the district. Bellavia, who challenged Collins in a 2012 GOP primary, has also never decisively stated his intentions, leaving most observers to list the war hero-turned-talk show host as the heavy favorite for either a nomination from party leaders or in a primary.
And despite the rapid developments of Monday, the Orleans County resident was still not tipping his hand. But his close associate, Michael R. Caputo, summed up the situation by painting his friend as the all but inevitable nominee – if he wants it.
“It will be a Republican free-for-all unless Bellavia gets in,” said Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who started a “Draft Bellavia” movement. “He would likely do so with the support of the president, and I think the field will then clear.”
Neither publicly nor privately, no Republicans associated with the process takes issue with the notion of Bellavia as early favorite.
Cuomo's office, meanwhile, did not immediately return a request for comment. But his actions will be closely watched, with observers noting that a special election on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary would likely draw many more Democrats than normal to the polls.
Still, there was no question the campaign took on a new and important aspect with Collins removed from the field of Republicans. Announced candidates now include state Sens. Christopher L. Jacobs of Buffalo and Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, as well as attorney Beth A. Parlato of Genesee County. Assemblyman Steve Hawley of Genesee County is also mentioned, while Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. is expected to announce soon.
Collins had remained a strong presence in the race, even though he publicly said he would not decide about re-election until the end of the year. An August survey conducted by Buffalo pollster Barry Zeplowitz showed the congressman with a 61% approval rating among the district's Republicans. Collins had beefed up his campaign account to $773,000 and, as recently as Sept. 20 during a GOP gathering in Geneva, sounded very much like a candidate as he emphasized his support for President Trump in New York's most Republican congressional district.
Now the Collins resignation opens the door Mychajliw needed to all but declare his candidacy after a year of supporting the incumbent. While not officially declaring, on Monday he reiterated his intention to run with another attack on Jacobs, who announced in May.
"We absolutely have to prevent a never-Trumper from serving in NY27," Mychajliw said, "and that's Chris Jacobs."
PolitiFact has ruled the "never-Trumper" claim frequently voiced about Jacobs by Mychajliw and Collins to be false. And on Monday, Jacobs issued a statement dwelling on his conservatism, while also invoking the president.
“Our challenge now as Republicans and conservatives is to help restore the public trust and offer the people of Western New York a positive vision for the future," Jacobs said. "I’ve fought for conservative principles in Albany and worked hard to deliver on a high ethical standard. I decided to run for Congress because I believe Western New York deserves a member of Congress who can be effective and Republicans deserve a candidate who can win this seat, help President Trump stop the illegal immigration crisis and enact better trade deals."
Other candidates were also quick to declare their loyalty to the president, whom most polls find extremely popular throughout the district.
“It is vital that we continue to have a strong, conservative voice representing the residents of New York’s 27th Congressional District and elect a candidate who will defend President Trump’s agenda," Ortt said. "I am the only candidate in this race who has proven that they are willing to do both. It is time that we send a battle-tested patriot to Washington who will stand up for our district, stand up to the Party of Impeachment, and push back against the radical socialists running our nation’s Democrat Party."
Collins, who had faced a February trial in New York surrounding federal charges of insider trading, now further alters the constantly changing complexion of the 2020 congressional election with his resignation. Indeed, several GOP candidates emerged to succeed him in August 2018 when he suspended his campaign just after his indictment, and the same scenario appears to be developing for 2020.
When party leaders found no way to replace him in 2018, given the political calendar’s late date, Collins re-entered the fray in October only to barely squeak by Democrat Nate McMurray, who has declared his candidacy again for 2020.
“The real victims of Collins' crimes are the people of his district that he repeatedly lied to about his guilt," said McMurray, the Grand Island supervisor. "Collins and Republican party insiders robbed his constituents of the representation they need on important issues like the rising cost of healthcare, the opioid epidemic and the fight for good paying jobs. They all failed us, so I’m going to keep talking about the critical issues Western New Yorkers face every day, because that’s what public service should be about, working to make other people’s lives just a little bit better."