Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsCollins says he'll run for reelection, takes no questions in press appearance Dems see wider path to House after tight Ohio race Prosecutors portray GOP member as a brazen lawbreaker MORE’ (R-N.Y.) indictment on insider-trading charges on Wednesday is energizing Democrats, handing them a renewed shot at one of New York’s reddest districts and paving the way for a more robust anti-corruption strategy nationwide.
President Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 24 points in New York's 27th District in 2016. Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, saw an even bigger win that year, taking 67 percent of the vote against Democrat Diana Kastenbaum.
But Collins' legal troubles now have Democrats believing they can flip the script. Their candidate, Nate McMurray, saw a surge in contributions on Wednesday after languishing for months with little cash and only tepid support from national Democratic groups.
“We probably raised more this morning than we have in the whole race,” McMurray, who currently serves as town supervisor in Grand Island, said.
An adviser to McMurray, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, told The Hill the campaign believes Collins' indictment will help catapult the race onto the national scene and give the candidate access to a wider network of grassroots donors.
“It’s energized us beyond all possible belief. It’s open knowledge that the national party had written this race off,” the adviser said. “This is huge for us. Having a modicum of institutional support.”
The Cook Political Report, an election handicapper, moved the race to "likely Republican" from "solid Republican" after Collins' indictment.
And in a statement on Wednesday, Meredith Kelly, the communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said that the “seat is firmly in play for Democrats.”
McMurray campaign officials spent Wednesday fielding phone calls from the DCCC, the adviser said, but conceded that the committee has not yet made any new financial commitments.
“It’s gone zero to 100 real quick,” the adviser said of the DCCC’s involvement in the campaign.
The DCCC had kept New York’s 27th District on a list of potential “battlefields” – GOP-held districts targeted by the committee – since early 2017.
A DCCC official said Thursday that the race has long been a priority, but that the committee is now planning to hit Collins hard over the insider-trading allegations.
Prosecutors allege the Collins used his position on the board of Australian drug-maker Innate Immunotherapeutics to provide nonpublic information about drug trial results to his son and others to help them avoid financial losses.
Collins insisted that he is innocent in a brief press appearance on Wednesday evening and said that he planned to continue his bid for a fourth term in office, while fighting the charges.
Even if Collins had chosen to drop out out of the race, it would have been very difficult for Republicans to scrub his name from the ballot.
Jerry Goldfeder, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in election law, said that New York candidates can typically be removed from the ballot only if they die, run for another office or move out of state.
But running for another office “is not a politically viable option for an indicted person,” and moving out of state would likely present federal legal challenges, he said.
“When all is said and done, there is no way Collins can get off the ballot,” he told The Hill in an email.
Republicans were largely mum on the charges and Collins’ political future. Matt Gorman, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), called the allegations against Collins “very serious,” but said that the group would wait for the case to unfold.
“These are very serious charges,” he said in a statement. “We will let the facts come to light and trust the judicial system as we continue to assess his reelection campaign.”
While Collins’ legal troubles are likely to make his reelection bid more difficult, winning a race under indictment is not without precedent – former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) did it in 2014 as he faced charges of tax evasion.
However, he pleaded guilty to a single count soon after and resigned from Congress. He attempted a comeback this year after serving time in prison, but lost in the Republican to a candidate backed by Trump.
Jon Reinish, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said that it’s still possible for Collins to win in November. But he also said that Trump’s “drain the swamp” message resonated in Collins’ district, and that the lawmaker's legal troubles could make a new candidate more enticing.
While New York’s 27th District has been a conservative stronghold in recent years, voters there have elected both Democrats and Republicans to the House in years past. Reinish said that leaves room for a Democrat to “make a counterargument” against Collins.
“Whether this is a pickup opportunity for the Democrats – look, it’s possible," Reinish said. "It’s uphill, it’s playing a game of catch-up. But this is the perfect storm against Republicans that we saw in 2006; voters seeing this broad culture of corruption.”
Democrats also appeared poised to use Collins' indictment to hone a broader anti-corruption message against Republicans.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, and John Sarbanes, who chairs the House Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force, laid out their party’s strategy to go after a “culture of corruption” in Washington, particularly among those aligned with Trump.
“We have a president who’s the most ethically blind president we’ve ever seen. He’s as far from Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt as you can be,” Sarbanes said. “Collins has been one of the president’s lieutenants.”
The Trump administration itself has not been immune to scandal. Top officials, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, have departed over the past year amid allegations of questionable ethical behavior.
The DCCC also foreshadowed a new focus on an anti-corruption message on Thursday. Tyler Law, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement that “the simmering culture of corruption fostered by Washington Republicans has reached a boil.”