Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) this week reversed his decision to suspend his re-election campaign, one month after being arrested on insider trading charges.
Collins will keep his name on the ballot in New York’s 27th Congressional District and run for re-election in November, campaigning under indictment and the very real possibility that he may eventually be a convicted felon. On Wednesday he said he would “actively campaign” for the seat.
Collins’ opponent, Democrat Nate McMurray, first learned of Collins’ decision as he was opening up new headquarters with Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez earlier in the week.
“Well it’s nice to finally know who I’m running against,” McMurray joked, according to a statement.
It’s not every day that a congressional candidate’s opponent gets arrested, and decides to run anyway — but it’s happened before, and in some cases the indicted candidate has even won their election. Typically they don’t serve very long past election day, and it’s essentially unheard of to suspend a campaign before restarting it.
McMurray, for his part, has taken it all in stride.
‘You better beat him!’
The reversal capped off a confusing and exciting six weeks on the campaign trail for McMurray, town supervisor of Grand Island, a Buffalo suburb. What was it like to find out that his opponent, heavily favored to win re-election even with ethics clouds hanging over his head for months, had been arrested on August 8? McMurray was glad it happened when it did.
“I was most afraid that we were never going to have any of it come out before the election,” McMurray told ThinkProgress in late August, seated by a backyard stream in Avon, New York, following a campaign event. “My biggest worry was that November 8, he was going to be indicted, and I thought they were trying to hold on till that happened.”
McMurray’s campaign was initially considered a long-shot, even in a year that’s been remarkably kind to some Democrats. New York’s 27th district is the most conservative in the state, rated R+11 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.
The campaign took off following Collins’ indictment: McMurray saw a sudden surge in donations, did 30 national press interviews in three days, took calls from national party leaders, and received affirmations that his campaign was “a worthy and decent fight.”
Since then, things have accelerated quickly. By late August, McMurray’s camp was finalizing its field plan, hiring staff beyond the first small team of about a half dozen people, opening more offices, and continuing the barnstorm the state.
He said he started hearing from people in parades and on the street, demanding, “You’d better beat him!” and taking a great deal of interest in his campaign.
McMurray is no stranger to tough election fights. In 2015, he beat incumbent Grand Island Town Supervisor Mary Cooke by 14 votes, having led only by two votes on election night. This time around, he’s hoping to capitalize on his opponent’s troubles to secure another hard-fought victory.
“We knew a blue wave was going to happen [this year] anyway,” McMurray said. “On top of that, we now got all these crooks, looking like jokers. We have to take advantage of this.”
‘Break the machine’
Collins was indicted on insider trading charges August 8. The charges stemmed from allegations he had passed inside information about a failed drug trial — conducted by a pharmaceutical company on which he served as chair of the board of directors — to his son, prior to the company’s own announcement. Collins allegedly instructed his son to sell his stock in the company, allowing him to avoid around $768,000 in losses.
Collins denied he had done anything wrong.
That same day, however, CBS News uncovered video of Collins on the phone during an event on the White House lawn — the same time Collins is alleged to have called his son to tell him to sell stock in the pharmaceutical company.
VIDEO: Rep. Chris Collins speaking on his phone at last summer's White House Congressional Picnic. The photo was taken at approximately 7:17 p.m. According to the indictment, Collins called his son Cameron at 7:16 p.m. (VIDEO: CBS) pic.twitter.com/EvSzrHTkY4
— News 4, WIVB-TV (@news4buffalo) August 8, 2018
The congressman maintains he is innocent.
“The reason why I wanted to run is because I wanted to fight against that type of corruption and mismanagement,” McMurray told ThinkProgress last month, responding to Collins’ flat denials. “The reality is the Republican Party knew about the fraud of Chris Collins. They championed it. They celebrated him. … They didn’t care.”
In addition to articulating progressive principles and policies in nontraditional ways, McMurray has made the fight against corruption a central part of his campaign. One ad released this week depicts a sledgehammer destroying a TV showing Collins speaking at the Republican National Convention.
— Nate McMurray for Congress (@Nate_McMurray) September 19, 2018
“I thought it was a corrupt system that we needed to fight against,” McMurray said, citing his campaign slogan, “Break the machine,” a reference to the political machine he says controls most of the region.
McMurray believes Collins never really wanted off the ballot. The congressman only suspended his campaign after he was arrested — he didn’t end it, he said. And he’s had a largely cavalier attitude about his legal issues so far: in late August, McMurray noted, Collins’ lawyers said he would start paying his own legal bills, after it was revealed he had been using his campaign treasury to pay them for the past year.
McMurray likes to tell the story of how local Republicans, in the early days following Collins’ indictment, held meetings to figure out how to remove Collins from the ballot anyway. “[They held them] at a casino — can you think of a worse location to meet than behind closed doors at a casino?” he said.
Those ejection efforts were chaotic and made a lot of people angry, he added. “I don’t know what they’re doing, it’s such a fiasco,” he said.
Local Democratic officials had expected any GOP efforts to get Collins off the ballot to be legally unsuccessful. As it turned out, they were right.
“They were trying to bend the rules” to get Collins knocked off the ballot, Livingston County Democratic Chair Judith Hunter told ThinkProgress. A fight to keep him on the ballot would “be adjudicated,” and not settled for a while, she explained.
Collins’ lawyers came to the same conclusion Monday, noting it would be too difficult to successfully get him removed from the ballot.
“Because of the protracted and uncertain nature of any legal effort to replace Congressman Collins, we do not see a path allowing Congressman Collins to be replaced on the ballot,” attorney Mark Braden said in a statement.
“When are they going to finally, cleanly distance themselves from Collins?” McMurray said, speaking with ThinkProgress prior to that announcement. “…I think they’re still hoping there’s some ex machina situation where he’s cleared. If you hear the comments on it, they sound like they’re victims experiencing some kind of martyrdom. Like, ‘I can’t believe this happened to us.’ Of course it happened, you knew who he was, you were part of that same system.”
‘A chance to win’
“I thought from the get-go that we had a chance to win,” McMurray told a crowd of supporters in Avon last month. He commiserated with a few people who said they had protested Collins’ office over what they saw as corruption, and had been laughed at and told to go home.
“They didn’t want us talking about it,” he said. “I would go to meetings, some of these characters who want to run against me now, would laugh at me. They would point at me and snicker, say nasty things at parades. ‘You’re not going to win, you’re a nobody, go home, this is our district. It’s predestined for us’ is how they acted. We didn’t have a right to run against them. How dare a guy like me go against a guy with $100 million in the bank, or however many millions.”
Since Collins’ indictment, however, the mood has shifted.
“I know Collins will have his supporters no matter what,” Warsaw resident Bill Bark told ThinkProgress at the New York State Fair in late August. “He might win, but he won’t be able to carry out the duties of his office. Do I think Collins is guilty? Probably.”
Whether those seeds of doubt are enough to boost McMurray to victory in November is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that the campaign to defeat Collins is much different than it most would have guessed last year, giving Democrats tangible hope for an upset.