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Indicted lawmaker angers GOP with decision to run for reelection
Rep. Chris Collins's (R-N.Y.) decision to remain on the ballot this fall despite his indictment on insider trading charges is drawing fire from Republicans, who believe it could put a safe seat at risk in a cycle where the GOP House majority is in jeopardy.
Even if Collins does win his Buffalo-area district, Republicans worry that having him on the ballot will tar the party as a whole, inviting accusations that the GOP is governing over a culture of corruption.
Republican lawmakers haven't been publicly criticizing Collins for his decision Wednesday to reverse course and announce he would fight to keep his seat.
But some GOP strategists have been unsparing with their criticism.
Collins's decision was "selfish and cavalier," said Republican Matt Mackowiak.
"It is unhelpful, but it is his decision to make," he said. "The only way it is a good decision is if two things are highly likely to happen: complete exoneration and his own reelection."
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has so far remained silent on Collins's decision to stay in the race. Spokesmen for the NRCC did not return multiple requests for comment about whether and how the House GOP's campaign arm will be supporting Collins's reelection bid.
Independent handicappers see the decision as a problem for the GOP. Earlier this week, the Cook Political Report changed its prediction for the race from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican."
Collins was arrested on insider trading charges in August, the same month that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) was indicted for allegedly misusing campaign cash. The men were President Trump's first two supporters in Congress.
Prosecutors allege Collins, who served on the board of directors for pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics, gave nonpublic information about drug trial results to his son to help him "make timely trades in Innate stock and tip others."
Collins did not sell his Innate shares and lost roughly $17 million after the results were announced, but his son reportedly avoided more than $570,000 in losses because of the alleged tip from the congressman.
Collins suspended his reelection campaign three days after the indictment, prompting Republicans to search for a way to replace him, but then changed his mind this week.
"Has anyone checked whether [Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] has maxed out to Collins?" quipped Republican strategist Liz Mair. "That's how dumb a move this is."
In New York, election experts say there are only three ways someone can be removed from the ballot this late: If the candidate runs for another office, moves out of state or dies.
Democrats had threatened to sue to keep Collins on the ballot, under the belief it would give them a better chance to flip his seat. The Buffalo News reported that the threat of Democratic lawsuits was one reason why Collins decided to remain on the ballot.
There's no doubt that Collins could win the deeply red district that went for Trump by 24 points in 2016. The three-term lawmaker beat out his Democratic opponent by nearly 35 points in the last election cycle.
"It's definitely not an ideal situation, but this district is a Republican stronghold and an area where Collins is still popular despite these allegations," one GOP campaign aide told The Hill. "He should be able to still win and not put our majority in greater jeopardy than it's already in."
The insider trading allegations might not carry as much weight with voters as other crimes, especially since Collins adamantly denied the charges and also sustained massive financial losses.
By comparison, former Rep. Michael Grimm, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Rep. Dan Donovan in New York's GOP primary this summer, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and served time in federal prison.
"On the scale of political official indictments, it's not as lethal as most," Mackowiak said of Collins.
But, he added, "it gives the Dems something to use against him and will make it hard for him to raise money."
Collins's opponent, Democrat Nate McMurray, already seized on Collins's decision to stay in the race and used the indictment as a weapon against him.
Democrats were targeting the district even before Collins's announcement, with Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez campaigning for McMurray in the district on Monday.
"It looks like the criminal is returning to the scene of the crime - and I'm not just talking about insider trading, lying to the FBI and everything else he's been accused of - I mean the derelict of duty he did by ignoring his constituents and their interests for every second of his elected life," McMurray said in a statement. "He looks out for himself. And maybe his donors."
There is also concern that Collins and other GOP ethics controversies could hurt the party in races all around the country. Democrats had already been planning to paint Trump and the Republicans as corrupt ahead of the midterm elections, but their case got new legs after the Collins and Hunter indictments.
And their strategy may be working. Only 26 percent of respondents believe Republicans would be more effective than Democrats in reducing government corruption, according to a new poll from Navigator. That's compared to 37 percent of respondents who think Democrats would be better equipped to do so, while 37 percent said they didn't know enough to have an opinion.
"In an attempt to end a devastating news cycle following Congressman Chris Collins's indictment, Republicans immediately vowed that they would get their scandalized Congressman off the federal ballot, but we now know that this wasn't true," said Meredith Kelly, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
"In the most stark sign that House Republicans are a corrupt and unethical body only out to benefit themselves and their special interests, there are now two indicted Republicans on the ballot in November."
"The stakes just got a whole lot higher on Nov. 6," she added.
-Juliegrace Brufke contributed