After years of toiling in relative obscurity, just another finely tailored suit roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol among the congressional rank and file, Chris Collins had finally made it big time.
As the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president, at the time a long shot for the Republican nomination, Collins’ status skyrocketed. The Republican congressman from a sleepy, sprawling district in Western New York was all over the airwaves, with networks seeking him out as Trump’s grip on the party nomination tightened.
And by the time the party was ready to christen Trump as its standard-bearer – even as procedural skirmishes were breaking out on the floor of the Republican National Convention and the Never Trump movement was in full swing – Collins had been lifted into the inner circle of the all-but-inevitable nominee, spending time in the Trump family’s private box at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena and offering a second to his nomination.
“We, in Western New York, know Donald Trump is not merely a candidate,” Collins told the raucous convention crowd. “Donald Trump is a movement.”
But now, as the political machines start to gear up for next year’s midterms, Collins is facing a mounting opposition, the likes of which he has not faced since first winning his seat in 2012, a development no doubt spurred by his proximity to the president. So, while the benefits of helping Trump were clear last year, the question remains: Will that relationship help or hurt Collins as he seeks a fourth term?
Over the first six months of the year, it has become plain that Democrats see the congressman as a symbol of everything that’s gone wrong in Washington and a convenient foil in their efforts to make up for the devastating losses in 2016 that left them with no tangible power. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed his seat as a target for 2018 – one of 59 nationwide – despite the congressman’s convincing 35-point victory last year in a district where Trump also won big.
Not all of the attacks have to do with Trump. Democratic politicians and left-leaning advocacy groups filed complaints with the House Ethics Committee that spurred an investigation this year after reports surfaced that Collins had been heard bragging about making people in the Buffalo area rich through a stock deal. It has come out since that he was also pushing a biotech stock, which has shot up in value since, to fellow members of Congress, including now Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, just prior to a private stock sale last summer where Collins bought an additional 4 million shares. At the heart of the investigation is whether Collins’ vote on a bill, months before the private stock sale, was improper because the legislation would have directly benefited the Australian biotech company, Innate Immunotherapeutics.
Collins has been mum on the investigation, though staffers and political advisers have characterized it as a “witch hunt” pushed by political enemies, noting that Collins has held stock in the company for more than 15 years. “In the end, when the facts come out … this will all be exposed for the witch hunt that it is,” Chris Grant, the top adviser to Collins’ campaign, told City & State.
In addition, the congressman’s unwillingness to hold town hall meetings in his district has drawn the ire of constituents. Some even raised money to post billboards shaming him and formed a coalition of grass-roots groups that are hellbent on ousting him.
Collins has repeatedly argued that town hall meetings are a waste of time, amounting to opportunities for partisan activists to shout down representatives, with no productive discussion to be had. “I feel by meeting with, and talking to, literally tens of thousands of my constituents during the course of the year in different gatherings and going to high schools, I have a give-and-take that’s a true give-and-take,” he said during a televised town hall-style event filmed in Washington, D.C., for CNN.
And just this month, Collins was criticized for blaming Democrats for the mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, two Capitol Police officers, a staffer from Rep. Roger Williams’ office and a lobbyist seriously injured. Collins took to the radio just hours after the incident, and before any official information on the nature of the attack had been released, to lambaste his minority party colleagues, drawing attention from national news outlets like The Hill, Politico and CNN.
“I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric,” Collins told WBEN, a radio station that hosts many right-leaning talk shows. “The rhetoric has been outrageous ... the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters.”
Collins later walked back those statements, saying that he had been caught up in the emotions of the shooting. “It’s time for all of us, including myself, to tone down our rhetoric and recognize that we are all of one country and all proud Americans,” he said in a statement.
Then he published an op-ed in The Washington Post reasserting earlier statements that he would now be carrying a gun while touring his district. “I owe it to the people in my community, God help me, to try to stop a threat to their safety, should it ever occur because of my presence,” he wrote in the opinion piece. His stance was criticized on social media for what some viewed as hypocrisy.
For many, though, Collins’ chief vulnerability is his loyalty to the president. Michelle Johnston Schoeneman, a teacher from Collins’ district, has emerged as a leader of the grass-roots movements after spearheading efforts to put up the anti-Collins billboards. The billboards display a photoshopped image of the congressman throwing his hands in the air and the message, “Where’s Chris Collins? WNY would like a word … .” As she visits towns and villages organizing against Collins, she has heard a common refrain that gives her confidence that the congressman can be defeated: buyer’s remorse for the man to whom he hitched his wagon, President Donald Trump.
“With every passing day of his presidency he becomes more of a disaster and, therefore, so does Collins,” said Johnston Schoeneman, who is now running for county legislature as a first-time candidate.
The Collins camp is showing no signs of worry. Collins declined to be interviewed for this story, but Grant, the congressman’s political adviser, was dismissive of the early noise from Democrats.
“The Democrats are really good at bluster,” Grant said. “What they aren’t really good at is action and moving the ball forward.”
Nick Langworthy, the Erie County Republican Committee chairman who has helped Collins win campaigns for Erie County executive and Congress, said the extra scrutiny is all part of being in the spotlight. Given Collins’ work for the Trump campaign, his spot on the transition team and his status as the president’s top liaison on Capitol Hill, it was expected that he would become fodder for Democrats, and the media writ large. What’s different this year, Langworthy said, is the current “period of political warfare” akin to what is normally reserved for the heart of campaign season.
“He was going to become a target, especially after the exposure he received as a national surrogate,” Langworthy said. “He is a very easy target for Democrats to use to raise money, to raise their rallying cry amongst their core base.”
“We, in Western New York, know Donald Trump is not merely a candidate. Donald Trump is a movement.” – Rep. Chris Collins
Despite the Democrats’ saber rattling, defeating Collins would take a great plan, a tremendous candidate, exquisite execution, ideal political circumstances and at least a little luck.
Across the board, experts and insiders agree that even if all of those elements were to come together, the Democrats, who are still in the process of picking a candidate, would also need for the current conditions working in their favor to hold – Trump’s low approval rating, dismay over efforts to scale back Obamacare and scant progress on other major legislative goals.
Brad Blakeman, a Beltway GOP strategist who was a member of former President George W. Bush’s senior staff, said the Democrats’ best chance of gaining significant headway in the House and Senate at the midterms is if Republicans fail to accomplish any of their major goals from the campaign season – health care, infrastructure and tax reform – by the end of the year.
Senate Republicans have been hammered for crafting their own recently released health care bill in private, and it remains unclear whether the controversial measure will have enough votes to pass. Trump’s tax plan amounts to little more than the list of bullet points he presented during his campaign and substantial details are not expected until at least the fall. His $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which he dedicated an entire week to promoting, also has little detail. “If they cannot produce legislation, specifically on health care, infrastructure, taxes, then there’s going to be hell to pay in 2018,” Blakeman said.
Even if all those stars align for the Democrats, history paints a bleak picture for their party in New York’s 27th Congressional District. In 2012, Collins, who had served one term as Erie County executive before losing to Mark Poloncarz, barely defeated incumbent Kathy Hochul. Despite a Republican voter registration advantage, Collins won by fewer than 2 percentage points. And to even keep things that close, Hochul had to spend nearly $5 million to his $1.4 million, according to campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission. Collins routed political neophytes in his two successful re-election bids, far outpacing the roughly 10 percentage point registration advantage Republicans enjoy in the district.
On top of all that, local Democrats have yet to name a candidate, though a coalition of the district’s county committee chairs and some grass-roots organizations called Turn NY-27 Blue is in the process of interviewing a list of 10 people – the group has kept the names secret – who want the opportunity to take on Collins. The two initial frontrunners, Hochul and Poloncarz, declined to run for the seat. Neither lives in the district now. “If they had a rock-solid candidate, there wouldn’t be the need for the charade of a process,” Langworthy said.
Still, Jeremy Zellner, the Erie County Democratic Committee chairman, is as optimistic that Democrats can retake the seat as he has been since Collins first won. “Two years ago, we didn’t have anyone,” at this point in the cycle, he said. Zellner, who is part of Turn NY-27 Blue, said the group has been hearing from constituents who are passionately opposed to the health care bill and other Republican policies promoted since Trump took office.
“You cannot discount the people power that’s in the district right now,” Zellner said.
And indeed, historically, midterms have swung to the party out of power, sometimes drastically, with few exceptions in recent decades. After Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act and former President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2010, a very unpopular piece of legislation at the time, Republicans made historic gains in the House, picking up more than 60 seats and gaining a majority that they’ve held since – and expanded in the 2016 election.
Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that trend, coupled with Trump’s low approval ratings over recent months and the unpopularity of the health care bill, will create an environment ripe for another big swing, if those factors don’t change before Election Day. “Recently, usually the swings have been quite marked,” Hopkins said.
And there are some early indicators that the political mood has already begun to swing. An Assembly special election in May went to Democratic candidate Christine Pellegrino, a schoolteacher and political newcomer, over her Republican opponent Tom Gargiulo for a Long Island seat in a heavily Republican district that Trump won with 60 percent of the vote. In a special election to Congress in Kansas, Republican Ron Estes beat his Democratic opponent James Thompson by just seven points in a district where Trump won by 27 points. In New Hampshire, Democrat Edith DesMarais defeated Republican Matthew Plache in a state legislative district considered a Republican stronghold that Trump won by seven points.
Those numbers may bring some comfort to Democrats, but they failed to take a single seat in the four contests to replace members of Congress who left their seats to join Trump’s Cabinet.
Still, while special elections are more likely to see upsets, given that neither candidate has the advantages that come with incumbency, analysts see sitting Republicans as increasingly vulnerable in the midterms.
And Zellner is hoping that the grass-roots opposition to Collins he and allies say is building in the district is enough to make it one of the surprise races next fall. “We believe, from what we’re hearing,” he said, “that this is a district that we can make a good challenge in.”
“He is a very easy target for Democrats to use to raise money, to raise their rallying cry amongst their core base.” – Nick Langworthy, Erie County Republican Committee chairman
Whether or not Democrats have a real shot at pulling off an upset, Collins’ political machine is gearing up earlier than it has in years past. This could simply be a reaction to the fervor with which Democrats are coming out of the gate, or perhaps due to Collins’ elevated visibility and proximity to the president. But it could also signal some anxiety that his close association with Trump and his vote for the deeply unpopular American Health Care Act may spell trouble.
In the last two two-year fundraising cycles, Collins raised about $1 million each time. In the first three months of the current cycle, he reported raising $281,000 and he has planned a more aggressive schedule of fundraisers in Washington, D.C., than in previous years, The Buffalo News reported.
Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the DCCC, claimed that Collins’ early fundraising efforts are a sign of worry. “He can sense his own vulnerability and we sense it too,” he said.
Grant downplayed the fundraising haul, saying that Collins isn’t worried, but also doesn’t take anything for granted. “There’s no question that Washington is a dynamic and volatile place these days,” he said, “and any smart, hardworking congressman is going to do anything in their power to prepare for any eventuality.”
While this year’s race is likely to be more heated, Collins has a big advantage in simply knowing that he will be the candidate. As the incumbent, as someone in the president’s inner circle, as someone who has traveled the district countless times, as someone with a sophisticated fundraising apparatus – he has about $1 million on hand – he is well-positioned to fend off any attacks.
Grant says that the game plan has not changed from previous cycles – promoting a message of job creation, national security issues and America’s place on the world stage – even if the pace of fundraising has quickened. Voters of the district, he argues, will see through the message the Democrats are pushing and recognize it as “D.C. spin.”
“At the end of the day they don’t care about Washington, D.C. nonsense,” he said. “They care about how this impacts their lives and we’re looking forward to putting Congressman Collins’ record, on that front, against their failed record any day of the week.”
Democrats will also have to avoid the infighting of 2016, something Zellner says won’t be a problem, as all the people they have interviewed have pledged to support the endorsed candidate. Still, people from outside the group, including stalking horse candidates, could ruin those plans.
And as the Democrats spend time and energy looking for a candidate, while also facing the possibility of a contentious primary, Collins is free to continue fundraising, grabbing headlines and engaging in early campaigning, said Blakeman, the GOP strategist. “All Chris has to do is sit back and enjoy the fight,” he said.
At the heart of the battle over messaging will be whether discontent with Trump, the health care bill, the economy or any number of other factors will be enough to convince Republicans to either flip their vote or stay home on Election Day.
Hopkins, the political science professor, said that there are crosswinds in the district when it comes to campaigning on an anti-Trump message. A good predictor for midterms, he said, is often the margin of victory for the president. Districts where a president wins by more than 15 points – Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 25 in Collins’ district – tend to stay with the president’s party. “These are the kinds of seats that, even in a down year, tend to be hard, but not impossible, for an out party to win,” Hopkins said.
At the same time, a key demographic for Trump’s victory, white people without college degrees, could present a problem, as they are more likely to stay home on a midterm year. “It’s also worth pointing out that white, noncollege voters are a bit more volatile, just in that, as a group, they have moved from one party to another from election to election,” he said.
But for the Collins camp, the path forward seems to be clear. Grant mocked the Democrats for believing that tying the congressman to Trump, while also sending Cuomo, who garnered just 35 percent of the vote in the district in 2014, to attack Collins on health care, is a winning strategy. Cuomo and Hochul assailed Collins and Rep. John Faso after the two congressman added an amendment onto the House health care bill that Democrats argue will cost the state nearly $7 billion over the next four years.
“I think it tells you everything you need to know about the Democrats’ political acumen,” Grant said.
“(A Democratic challenger) can’t be someone who is carrying the liberal torch. It’s got to be someone who represents the district.” – Jeremy Zellner, Erie County Democratic Committee chairman
So, as the Democrats work toward choosing a candidate, Collins will go on raising money and using small group events to promote his conservative brand of politics.
While Zellner said there is no timetable on an endorsement, he and his fellow Democrats are on the same page in terms of the type of candidate they will need to pull off an unlikely victory. “It can’t be someone who is carrying the liberal torch,” Zellner said. “It’s got to be someone who represents the district.”
Johnston Schoeneman declined to name any of the candidates, saying it was their choice on when and how to announce their candidacies. However, she did say there are several people with significant military backgrounds she believes could provide the centrist image needed to get a Democrat elected.
Some of Johnston Schoeneman’s fellow teachers who voted for Collins and Trump have already soured on the president, she said. The next step is convincing them that Collins is more interested in serving his donors and his ally in the White House than the people of Western New York. “These are smart people,” Johnston Schoeneman said. “They’re just people who really were hoping that something would change.”
Grant painted a much different picture.
“The reality is the Democrats don’t have a message, they don’t have a candidate, they don’t have money,” he said. “All they’ve got right now is a lot of hysteria and they’ve shown a complete lack of organizational ability to translate that into anything remotely resembling a competitive campaign.”
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