When Republican county leaders stood shoulder to shoulder Saturday to announce their special election candidate for the 27th Congressional District, they were trying to demonstrate unified support for State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs.
But a fleeting photo-op may have been the only result from their seven-hour conclave in Wyoming County. A divisive, expensive and possibly nasty primary election now seems guaranteed after at least two of the rejected candidates promise to take their case to the voters for the subsequent contest on June 23.
A series of rapid-fire developments added new dimensions Monday to finding a Republican candidate for the seat of former Rep. Chris Collins. They include the fact that:
• Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. labeled the nomination as “made behind closed doors by party bosses” and said he will challenge Jacobs. He joins former Darien Town Justice Beth A. Parlato, who has already promised her own primary election effort.
• Jeff Freeland, a Lewiston native and White House aide to President Trump, said he will not address his potential candidacy until after impeachment proceedings have ended. This week, he serves as a member of the president’s impeachment team on the floor of the Senate.
• State Sen. Robert G. Ortt said he remains a candidate, but will determine his final course within the next few days.
• A Washington political committee called the Club for Growth could assume a powerful role in coming days after vowing to spend significant money to stop Jacobs in a primary. Its spokesman was unavailable Monday, but a source noted that one of its representatives was making its case at a Monday meeting of statewide Conservatives in suburban Albany.
• New attention focused on the Conservative Party, which must now choose between joining the GOP in a united effort against Democrat Nate McMurray, or backing someone else if Jacobs is deemed too “moderate.”
The party could also perform a series of election law gymnastics allowing it to postpone its decision for the moment.
Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Committee and a state vice chairman, acknowledged Monday the key role now played by his relatively tiny party. A choice of anybody besides Jacobs could split the effort against McMurray, he noted, and hand Democrats a major advantage in a special election. Heavy Democratic turnout is already expected for an election expected to be held on the same day as the party’s presidential primary.
“No one wants to screw up the special election” effort against McMurray, Lorigo said.
But while Jacobs has always run with Conservative support, he must now fend off charges he is not “conservative enough.” As he was expected to make the rounds at the Conservative meeting in Latham late on Monday, the party was preparing to formally recognize Ortt with its Legislative Scorecard Award for his 100% conservative voting record in the Senate.
Lorigo said the Conservative nod, ultimately controlled by state Chairman Gerard Kassar, may be postponed.
“Right now, I think everyone is just putting their cards on the table,” Lorigo said. “And since the governor has until Feb. 19 to call the special, I think everyone punts.”
He also noted that the party could theoretically back Parlato, an attorney, and then fulfill election law requirements by substituting her this summer for a State Supreme Court nomination in another part of the state – a frequently used tactic to remove candidates from the ballot. A “placeholder” attorney also could theoretically be nominated, he added, if someone else won a GOP primary and the party then wanted to get behind that candidate.
Mychajliw, meanwhile, now prepares for an anti-establishment effort he likens to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“Can you imagine if Donald Trump listened to the establishment Republicans and let Jeb Bush run for the White House?” he said. “Hillary Clinton would be president right now.
“We’ll take our record to the voters and let them decide,” he added. “People are sick and tired of backroom politics.”
Though Mychajliw starts his campaign with no money, he (or Parlato) could benefit from any effort by the Club for Growth against Jacobs. He said he has no doubts that he will soon raise enough to compete in the primary.
He vowed to run a “grassroots” campaign without Washington political consultants, and pointed to about a dozen party leaders and elected officials from southern Erie County who immediately endorsed his candidacy following the Saturday nominating meeting as evidence of support.
Considerable speculation continues to surround Freeland, however, after he unexpectedly showed up at the Byrncliff Golf Club in Varysburg on Saturday and offered his candidacy to the county leaders. He did not commit to any course on Monday, noting his current impeachment duties that could extend for several more days.
“I said to the president that I will see impeachment out to the end,” he said. “I don’t know the answer just yet. At this moment I need to singularly focus on getting this done.
“I’ve certainly talked to the president about this,” he added.
Indeed, Erie County Republican Chairman Karl J. Simmeth Jr. said Saturday that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had contacted him about the possible Freeland candidacy.
Several observers now note that Freeland could enter the race as an obvious Trump choice and as a rejection of the Jacobs candidacy that some ultra-conservatives have dismissed as not “conservative enough.”