Last week’s indictment of 27th District Congressman Chris Collins and others on insider trading charges has encouraged another look at the possible competitiveness of a district that has been the most overwhelming Republican one in New York State. National House race political gurus have moved their reviews of the district from strong Republican to leaning Republican. That’s not a major shift thus far, but the consensus appears to be that Democratic candidate Nate McMurray’s chances have improved from where they stood just ten days ago.
It’s not unusual in politics for legends to supersede reality, leading even knowledgeable politicos to make assumptions about campaign outcomes that are not necessarily rooted in reality. Think the race for United States Senator from Alabama at the end of last year or Congressman Joe Crowley’s race for re-election in Brooklyn in June. What’s to say that New York’s 27th district will not also defy standard assumptions?
The history of the current 27th congressional district, traced back in its various drawings following federal reapportionments, has been a Republican district for most of the past sixty years or more. Republicans who have held the seat in its past or current forms include John Pillion, Jack Kemp, Bill Paxon, Tom Reynolds, Chris Lee and Chris Collins. Democrat Max McCarthy held the seat between 1965 and 1971. Kathy Hochul won a special election in 2011 and was the representative for a year and a half.
Hochul ran against Collins in 2012 and lost by just 5,001 votes, a margin of 1.6 percent. Collins comfortably won the last two elections in the district with margins of 85,764 (71 percent to 29 percent) in 2014 and 113,053 votes (67 to 33 percent) in 2016. Donald Trump carried the district by 24 percent in 2016.
When you drill down in the numbers you see substantial swings in total votes in 2012, 2014 and 2016. You also see enrollment numbers indicating that while there are 41,614 more Republicans than Democrats in the 27th, a total of 104,178 voters, or 21 percent of the district in 2018 are not affiliated with any party.
Here’s a summary of votes in the district in the past three general elections:
Year Candidate Total Vote Percentage of Vote
2012 Kathy Hochul (D) 156,219 49.2 %
Chris Collins (R) 161,220 50.8 %
2014 James O’Donnell (D) 58,911 29 %
Chris Collins (R) 144,675 71%
2016 Diane Kastenbaum (D) 107,832 33%
Chris Collins (R) 220,885 67 %
Several points are worth noting:
- In 2012 Hochul and Collins each had two lines on the ballot. In 2014 Collins had three lines to O’Donnell’s two, while in 2016 Collins had four lines to Kastenbaum’s one.
- Turnout in the last mid-term election (2014) was substantially less than in the presidential election years. The 2014 turnout was just 64 percent of what it was in 2012 and just 62 percent compared with the 2016 turnout.
- The portion of the district located in Erie County represents 42 percent of the district’s registered voters. Seven other Western New York counties make up the remainder of the district.
- The actual vote share from Erie County in the last three general elections was slightly higher than the county’s registration share: 44 percent in 2012; 42.7 percent in 2014; and 43.6 percent in 2016.
If Erie County Democrats could produce something close to 2012 or 2016 numbers for Democrat McMurray in 2018, when overall district turnout might be substantially reduced from 2016, McMurray would benefit greatly. I’m not minimizing the effort that must go into producing such a result, but it’s an opportunity nonetheless.
Collins has announced that he is suspending his campaign, a recent and fancy way that candidates report that they are quitting the race. He also has said that he will continue to serve in the House until his term runs out at the beginning of January.
Republican, Conservative and Independence Party leaders don’t have control over whether Collins stays on the ballot or tries to take a legal route out of the House race. Collins is substantially wounded but other members of Congress have been re-elected after an indictment. Nate Silver, political prognosticator extraordinaire, says that indicted candidates for Congress on average lose 9 percent of their previous victory margins. If that were the case Collins might still be able to win in 2018 if the voters could get past the very serious charges lodged against him.
That being said, the horror being universally expressed by Republicans about Collins’ continued candidacy clearly demonstrates that they consider him toast personally, and more importantly for the party, a major drag on the party ticket in New York State and beyond.
Collins might try to leave the ballot by resigning from Congress and retreat to his gated-community home in Florida, which could allow another candidate to be substituted. A former holder of Collins’ seat, Tom Reynolds, suggests however that New York State laws concerning candidates declining a party nomination and then being replaced by another candidate may not apply to congressional candidates. There is in fact a local precedent, and Reynolds is totally familiar with it since he was the departing congressman when the legal action occurred.
Jon Powers in 2008 was a Democratic and Working Families party candidate for Congress in the former 26th district. Powers lost the Democratic primary to Alice Kryzan and then attempted to get off the Working Families ballot in November by moving out of state so that Kryzan could be substituted on the Working Families line. A state court decision said that Powers could be removed from the ballot since he had moved out of state.
It didn’t work. The state court decision was then taken to federal court by supporters of Republican candidate Christopher Lee. Judge Richard Arcara, on the Friday before the election, ruled that taking Powers off the ballot would disenfranchise those who already voted by absentee ballot. Arcara also ruled that the House of Representatives has the authority on who is qualified for election. On the Monday before the election a three judge federal panel ruled that Powers could not be removed from the ballot. Powers name remained on the ballot and he received 12,104 votes. Kryzan lost to Lee.
Switching Collins into a race for another office is another option, but it could also run afoul of the same legal issues raised in the 2008 case. In any case, such a move would be awfully complicated since Collins holds the Republican, Conservative and Independence lines, and all three lines would need to be cleared. It has been suggested by some that they could run Collins for county clerk in some other part of the state, which is highly unlikely. There is the pesky problem of residency in the county or town where the switcheroo would occur.
More likely moves are being discussed by Republicans. One option would be to run State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer for Congress; then substitute State Assemblyman Ray Walter for the Senate seat; and then, drumroll, run Collins for Walter’s Assembly seat.
Given residency issues and the requirement to technically qualify Collins for office he would be seeking, a local town candidacy would need to occur in Clarence. There are no local offices on the ballot in Clarence this year, but what if a Republican town office holder such as the town justice suddenly resigned? Wouldn’t it be great to run an indicted congressman for town justice?
No matter what public office the Republican might attempt to plug Collins into, there would be the taint of scandal carrying over to all involved. Who would want to be a party to such a smelly scheme? Who would want Collins as their new running mate?
Fifteen or more names of other potential Republican candidates have surfaced – there is no reason to name them all at the moment. Many of the elected officials on the list have substantial campaign treasuries, but those are for state or local elections in New York State and the funds are not transferable to federal elections so a new Republican candidate jumping into the race would need to start from scratch. At least one potential candidate, Carl Paladino, could self-fund. The national Republican Party is already stretched thin financially, having to defend dozens of districts throughout the country, so whatever help they could offer would be limited. In the meantime the days until Election Day that are available for campaign organizing and fundraising are slipping away as discussions and impending legal actions clog everything up.
This is certainly going to enliven the campaign this year. Republicans from gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro on down will continue to go after Andrew Cuomo and the scandals of Albany, but the day-to-day political news will be counter-balanced by all things Collins. Republicans will often be required to comment on him. Certainly not what anyone was anticipating as August began.
Campaign financial updates
Candidates in the September 13th state and local primary elections were required to file campaign financial reports on August 13th for transactions and receipts through August 9th. Come back to politicsandstuff.com tomorrow and Thursday for the most recent financial reports.