Nate McMurray is a progressive Democrat running for Congress in the most Republican congressional district in New York. President Donald Trump may have lost statewide by 23 percent in 2016, but here in the 27th congressional district, which stretches across rural western New York from outside Buffalo to outside Rochester, he won comfortably by 24 percent.
Winning the 27th was thus destined to be a long-shot bid for McMurray. But that bid became a little more plausible in August when his opponent, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), was arrested on charges of insider trading. In the last six weeks, Collins has suspended his campaign, un-suspended his campaign, and returned to actively running for re-election. Collins was the first person in Congress to give Trump his endorsement, which means all the conflicts over the president’s divisive rhetoric and policies colors the race in the 27th. And though Collins is currently out on bail and facing real jail time, he will still be difficult to beat.
McMurray’s campaign didn’t just throw out the traditional playbook on how Democrats can compete in safe Republican seats — it never bought it in the first place. McMurray, a small-town supervisor with international business experience, isn’t trying to hide his progressive principles. But he is trying to translate them for Trump voters to make the case that the economic ideas that originally got them excited about Trump’s message are actually rooted in Democratic party traditions: Bad trade deals have hollowed out the American middle class. The forgotten men and women of America need someone who fights for them. And progressivism, not Trump conservatism, is truly the home to the policy ideas that will fix these messes.
McMurray contends that both Trump voters, and progressives who want to stop losing elections alike, should listen to candidates like himself who forcefully articulate progressive policies, not those who emulate Trumpian conservatism.
For someone who wants to represent a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 196,000 to 143,000, McMurray is an unabashed progressive politician.
“We have a story to tell about a reviving region, a region that is on fire with progressive ideas and progressive passion, grassroots leaders who refuse to say we’re not going to win,” he tells a crowd in the small town of Avon, NY in late August.
Medicare for All? It’s the main reason he’s running, he told ThinkProgress. Insurance companies “protect their monopolies so they can price gouge.” If the richest country in the world “can’t afford a way to provide basic care to its citizens, it’s wrong, it’s shameful.”
“This is the moral and economically smart thing to do,” McMurray contends. Democratic politicians who don’t support it “need to read some books, wake up.”
Money in politics? He believes “dark money in politics is ruining our country” and so he isn’t taking corporate money. “If someone controls you financially,” he says, “they control you every single other way.”
Climate change? He says it’s an existential problem, and we have to invest heavily in renewables. “It’s horrible what’s happening to the world and it’s going to get worse and worse, and it’s going to affect our business,” he contends.
Over and over again, McMurray’s common refrain is about responsibly tending to the public trust — as well as his constituents’ pocketbooks. For him, foreign wars are costly and endless (“When does it end? $4 million an hour,” he says). The student loan system has become “criminal,” in the way that the debt sticks to people no matter their hardships. And while he believes in the free market system, he doesn’t think that “a market system that just continues to gouge those who are weakest” qualifies as “free.”
And on Trump’s signature issues, McMurray is just as forceful in advocating against the president’s signature responses. Trump’s trade wars? He is “dumb” to wage them, McMurray says, more like the Joker sowing chaos than an advocate for America’s workers. Tax cuts? “I want to claw back the scam tax law as soon as possible.” He thinks it’s wrong to give tax cuts to serve “the indulgently rich” and re-concentrate wealth.
This is not the platform of a cautious Democrat hoping to emulate the Republican party just enough to squeak through in a close election in a conservative district. And some local party officials are getting on board.
“Nate is doing a great job of laying out progressive positions in a way that can appeal in this district,” Livingston County Democratic Chair Judith Hunter told ThinkProgress.
McMurray may not agree with most Trump policies, and finds much of his rhetoric horrifying. But some of what he says on the campaign trail echoes what voters hear from the president.
“One of the things I’m running on, and I believe profoundly, is the country’s going the wrong way,” he tells a group of mostly middle-aged residents at the campaign event in Avon. He’s getting ready to translate Trump’s signature red hat campaign slogan into something positive that progressives and moderates can get behind, and can still get through to Trump supporters.
“You can feel it in you stomach in the morning, right? You can feel the uneasiness. Are you proud of where we’re going? Does this resemble the America you grew up to admire and look up to?” The crowd shifts from foot to foot, a susurrus of “no’s” spreading across the backyard crowd. “No! That’s why we need to fight back.”
When Trump campaigned on his not recognizing America anymore, his main grievance was with non-white immigrants, who Trump saw as being responsible for changing the demographics and ideology of the country. For McMurray, it’s the chaos, the inequality, the selfishness, and the meanness brought to the surface of the national discourse that has made America unrecognizable.
McMurray says that he wants to “fight for the country that we believe in, that we created in the first place,” but doesn’t exactly want to “make America great again.” He readily admits that “America has always had problems,” but to McMurray, what “made America great is that we had grand aspirations about who we wanted to be.” He cited the Declaration of Independence’s “We the people” preamble and a John Winthrop quote about rejoicing in each other’s achievements and celebrating the common good. “It’s not ‘I the man.'”
McMurray takes Trump’s #MAGA message — recognizing the nation’s economic decline and the perceived loss of privilege that has accompanied it — and restores those ideas to a positive path.
“Over the last 50 years, we have a very different policy that’s come up,” he told the Avon crowd. “That policy is: greed is good, get as much as you can while you can get it, and those who achieve are the great ones and those who cannot achieve are the losers and they deserve what they get. The problem with that is we don’t have a fair system — there’s not fair competition. There’s a massive inequality,” which he blames on corporations, lobbyists, and lawyers.
“Do you know today, in America, one tenth of one percent controls 90 percent of the wealth?” he asks. “Did you know last year the bonuses on Wall Street were more than the combined yearly wages of every single American working on the federal minimum wage? You think this is a fair system? It’s time to fight back.”
This bromide, pitched on a backyard patio in a Rochester exurb, could have come from a Bernie Sanders rally. But then he pivots to a defense of the Democratic party and why it’s an institution worthy of preservation.
And regardless of Trump’s rhetorical strengths, the abject failures of his presidency are, to McMurray, far more urgent.
I believe we need to take back our party, too. We have to accept accountability. There’s a reason why President Trump won. It’s because our message was wrong. He had a great message. Not all of it — I say to people all the time, either he’s a racist or he plays one on TV. A lot of things he says are repugnant and horrible and awful. But why do you think people in Batavia voted for him? Are they all evil? No! They were throwing a Hail Mary! They need help! And he was saying a lot of things that made sense. These trade deals don’t make sense. We’ve been taken advantage of. He said boldly, ‘there’s forgotten men and women in this country, I will fight for you, I believe in you.’ That’s a powerful message. That’s our message. That’s our message. We got lost on some other message. But that’s the message we should be preaching because our policies actually reinforce that message. You think the average American understands that that’s our message? How do you think they view Democrats? They view us, like, finger foods and cocktail parties. Limousine liberals. Are you guys limousine liberals?
The crowd rejects that with a laugh, though some argue that a limo would be nice, and wonder if nuts and crackers and dip are finger foods. But they’re hooked.
When Trump took office, McMurray said he tried to have an open mind, that Trump might fulfill some of his rhetoric about working people — a job surge that led to an income surge — but none of those things have happened.
At a campaign office opening in Hamburg, NY, McMurray tackles President Trump’s neglect of Candidate Trump’s promises. “The problem is, his answers to the problems he’s talking about don’t make sense.” He said Trump’s trade wars were illogical and argued that “you can’t pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist.” Pushing for American goods like soy and dairy to compete in other markets is important, McMurray said, “but we have to be wise about it, and it’s very clear that this man cannot do it.”
“You can’t run on a policy of “Make America Great Again, Again,” McMurray said.
That’s not to say McMurray won’t scavenge the Trump campaign for useful parts.
McMurray touts the efficiency with which Trump ran his campaign — badly outspent yet victorious — as something he would like to emulate. Collins has already won the air war because he began the race with well over a million dollars while McMurray by contrast, has struggled to raise more than $100,000. But he hopes to use Trump’s model of fighting for every vote, holding rallies all across the district, and using language and arguments that aren’t in many political playbooks to break through.
He uses strong language and the “caps lock” key on Twitter in an oddly familiar way, as well.
The only federal building Collins belongs in is a penitentiary.
Collins, you bossed and bullied your way through your entire life. It’s time for you to feel what it’s like to be on the other side. It’s time for accountability.
So listen to me carefully…
LOCK. HIM. UP.
— Nate McMurray for Congress (@Nate_McMurray) September 20, 2018
Can you imagine if @RepChrisCollins is actually re-elected? Will he serve from prison? What a curse. As he laughs triumphantly with his team on stage, the Erie Canal will turn to blood, a plague of frozen locusts will descend from a lake effect squall.
FIGHT LIKE HELL
— Nate McMurray for Congress (@Nate_McMurray) September 18, 2018
He has adopted the catchphrase “fight like hell” based on personal advice he received for his race from the late Rochester-area Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). Trump has used the same phrase against his political enemies as well as to describe the way he has personally tried to avoid paying taxes.
McMurray does, however, insist that his supporters “be kind.”
“Republicans are not the enemy, just like Democrats are not the enemies,” he says. “We are from the same country. They’re our brothers and sisters — reach out to them. Don’t talk about the president. You can find common ground. That’s how we’ll bring people in.”
Reforming the Democratic Party
McMurray believes the Democratic Party needs a “whole influx of new leadership” because “the way we’ve gone for the last ten years is, we’ve lost every branch of government.” He acknowledges structural deficits, but he argues that “the message is not resonating.” He has said that “it’s time to move on” from Nancy Pelosi’s leadership of the House.
His focus isn’t entirely on party leadership, however. He wants to reverse the working-class voter slide away from the Democratic party and bring people back in.
“We need to bring people back into the party,” he told the crowd in Avon. “There was a time when my dad would wear a union jacket with pride, and call himself a Democrat. It’s hard to find those guys anymore. I go to the union halls and they they they’re a Democrat under their breath and they lower their head. We need to have those people standing with pride and say ‘I am a Democrat.’ Because we are the party of fairness and goodness. We are the party that will take that message, and we can only change the party, and change this country, at the grassroots level.”
Raising the hammer
Most supporters (and even some staff) who spoke to ThinkProgress described themselves as people who had not previously been very politically involved until hearing “Nate” speak.
“He excited people wherever he went,” said Livingston County Democratic Chair Judith Hunter. “He took it to Chris Collins every day, which is something that people in this district are longing for.” She said that there was a lot of energy on the ground looking for a candidate who could take on Collins, and McMurray impressed everyone in forums and speeches. Local grassroots groups jumped on board early which helped to avoid a contentious primary.
McMurray does seem to be more compelling at campaign events than one might expect from an underdog in this kind of Congressional race. He’s earnest and a bit gawky, in an “aw shucks I’m an Eagle Scout” sort of way. Still, he draws people in. And he’s not above making a splash with a prop.
He will sometimes hoist a rather large sledgehammer at the end of a speech in a tangible representation of his “break the machine” slogan.
“This the the hammer we’re going to use the break that dirty, ugly system,” he told a crowd in Hemlock, New York in August.
It remains to be seen if Collins’ decision to un-suspend his campaign and actively campaign while out on bail will be successful. McMurray’s happy to make his case directly to voters who backed Trump in 2016 and, he hopes, are ready to take a chance on an energetic, progressive outsider who is not under indictment.
“We might shock the world, November 7.”