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Indicted congressman Chris Collins reverses himself, will remain on November ballot

Rep. Christopher Collins (R-N.Y.) addressed the insider trading charges against him, saying he acted "properly" and will run for reelection in November. (Video: Reuters)
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Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), under federal indictment in connection with insider trading and lying to investigators, will remain on the ballot in November, his attorney said Monday, reversing Collins’s initial decision to suspend his campaign for reelection.

That is a scenario that Republican Party officials had hoped to avoid. While New York’s 27th Congressional District is heavily Republican, Democrats believe that with Collins on the ballot, they have an outside chance of claiming the seat in November as they fight to retake the House majority.

For weeks, state Republican officials explored finding a way for Collins to vacate the general election ballot and replace him with an untainted GOP candidate, but under New York state law there are scant options for a primary winner to spurn his party’s nomination. Short of death or moving out of state, Collins would have had to accept the Republican nomination for another state office.

Mark Braden, a lawyer for Collins, rejected that option in a statement released Monday.

“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,” he said.

Nick Langworthy, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party in New York, told reporters that Collins’s decision to remain on the ballot is a “pretty great surprise” after he and other party officials had spent weeks trying to orchestrate Collins’s replacement.

“Our hope was to substitute a candidate that could have run as a true conservative Republican working to pass President Trump’s agenda without distraction,” Langworthy told reporters at a news conference. “Unfortunately we’re not going to have that opportunity at this point.”

Langworthy said he learned Friday from Collins’s lawyers that Collins would not, in fact, cooperate with that process and confirmed that fact Monday in a phone call with Collins himself. He declined to describe the phone call except to say that Collins indicated he was following his attorneys' advice.

“You can’t help but feel like a jilted groom at the altar here,” Langworthy said, saying Republicans “had the rug pulled out from under us” by Collins.

Federal prosecutors charged Collins in August with 11 counts of securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to investigators. Collins served as chairman of Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australia-based pharmaceutical firm that had undertaken a high-stakes drug trial. In June 2017, according to prosecutors, Collins learned in his capacity as chairman that the trial had failed, then tipped off his son, allowing the son and other family members to avoid more than $700,000 in losses by selling their stakes before the news was made public.

Collins has represented New York’s 27th Congressional District, which encompasses suburban and rural areas stretching east of the Buffalo metropolitan area, since 2013. The Democratic nominee is Nate McMurray, a lawyer and local official in the Buffalo suburb of Grand Island, who has said he received a spike in donations after Collins’s indictment.

In a statement Monday, McMurray said, “it’s nice to finally know who I’m running against.”

“There are laws for a reason. There is accountability in our society for a reason. And in the greatest democracy in the world, voters weren’t going to take this kind of sham switching around names on a ballot at the whims of local party bosses,” he said.

Collins has vigorously denied wrongdoing but said, after the charges were filed, that suspending his campaign would be “in the best interests of the constituents of NY-27, the Republican Party and President Trump’s agenda.”

But stepping aside would carry personal risks for Collins. Attempting to swap another candidate for Collins would have likely sparked litigation from Democrats that could have distracted from Collins’s criminal defense effort. In addition, many indicted politicians have made their public service a bargaining chip in plea negotiations with prosecutors, ultimately agreeing to resign only after they have reached a deal to resolve the charges against them.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report immediately shifted the race from solid Republican to likely Republican after the indictment. Collins reported a $1.3 million campaign war chest at the end of June, while McMurray’s campaign had less than $82,000 in the bank at that point.

National Democrats quickly pounced on Collins, who will join Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) in standing for reelection while under criminal indictment.

“The voters of New York 27th Congressional District now have the clearest of choices between scandal-plagued Chris Collins and Nate McMurray, who will be a real fighter for the families of Western New York, and the stakes just got a whole lot higher on Nov. 6," said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Langworthy said he hoped — and expected — Collins to use his campaign money to keep the seat in GOP hands, saying he is “very concerned about the House Republican majority.”

“I think that the race would be relatively close, I really do,” Langworthy said. “Before Aug. 8, this was not a competitive race; this was not on anyone’s radar. ... Now we find ourselves in a seat where this will draw a lot of attention — and has drawn a lot of attention.”