• The Star Staff

In a GOP stronghold, a vacant House seat gives Democrats hope

By Jesse Mckinley

Last time around, Nate McMurray seemed to have everything going his way.

The man he was trying to unseat, Rep. Chris Coll- ins, was hit with federal insider trading charges three months before the 2018 general election. Collins, a Republican, tem- porarily suspended his campaign; even when he resumed, he raised little money and made few public appearances in the district in western New York.

Despite those advantages, McMurray, a Democrat, fell short, losing by less than 1,100 votes. The result underscored McMurray’s challenge, then and now.

The 27th Congressional District is about as Republican as New York, a deep blue state, can get. Donald Trump ca- rried the district by some 25 points in 2016, and Collins had been one of the president’s earliest and most ardent suppor- ters.

But Collins’ tenure came to a screeching halt last fall, when he resigned and pleaded guilty, creating a vacancy that will be filled by a special election on Tuesday.

McMurray is back to try again — and will face state Sen.

Chris Jacobs, the Republican candidate, in a race that is po- tentially a harbinger of the electoral mood before November’s presidential election.

Despite the long odds, McMurray, a lawyer and for- mer town supervisor in Grand Island, New York, northwest of Buffalo, has been buoyed by what he sees as concern in some Republican ranks: Last week, the president’s son, Do- nald Trump Jr., recorded a robocall for Jacobs, a move that came on the heels of an endorsement on Twitter from the president himself.

The backing from the Trumps — and Jacobs’ embrace of the president — is somewhat striking considering that fellow Republicans regularly criticized the senator as too moderate in the past.

Now, however, Jacobs seems to be banking on the president’s appeal and McMurray’s disdain for him.

“It’s clear that Nate hates Trump,” Jacobs said, adding, “The majority of the voters in this district support Trump.”

Indeed, on one point, at least, Jacobs and McMurray seem to agree: 2020 will be a referendum on the president.

“A win would be a punch in the eye to Trumpism,” said McMurray. “A close loss would be the same.”

But if Democratic Party leaders think the contest has added significance, they are not acting that way: The Demo- cratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, has done little to support McMurray’s campaign.

Jacobs, a scion of a wealthy Buffalo family, earned the Republican nomination in late January after being en- dorsed by eight county chairs in the district, an anvil-sha- ped chunk of suburban and rural towns between Buffalo and Rochester.

The special election is for the remainder of Collins’ term, which ends this year; the seat will be contested again in Nov- ember for a full two-year term.

In a peculiar wrinkle, Jacobs is not only running against McMurray in the special election; he is also simultaneously running in the Republican primary against two challengers — Beth Parlato and Stefan Mychajliw Jr. — on Tuesday.

Like campaigns nationwide, the race in the 27th has been complicated by the coronavirus outbreak and intensified by the civil unrest that erupted following the George Floyd killing on Memorial Day.

Jacobs, who cuts a quieter, more subdued figure than McMurray, is in his second term representing a district com- prising a number of Buffalo suburbs, after a stint as county clerk in Erie County. He dismisses the notion of an upset, sa- ying that McMurray is wildly out of step with the mores and mood of the 27th.

“His politics are wrong for this district,” said Jacobs, who is 53, married, with a toddler at home. “He is very liberal. He is for much more of a socialist America. And this district does not align with that.”

He added: “I think that he’d be much more appropriate running in Manhattan.”

In late March, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo moved the elec- tion from April 28, lengthening the campaign by two months; he later increased access to absentee voting by mail, which McMurray believes boosted his chances. Early voting began June 13; his campaign asserted that many absentee and other early-voting ballots have been cast by Democratic voters.

The district’s demographics undoubtedly favor Jacobs: There are about 40,000 more Republicans than Democrats, as well nearly 14,000 Conservative Party members, who ge- nerally vote for Republicans.

For farmers like Doug Tillotson, the pressing issues of this election are immigration, which is vital to supply agricul- tural labor, as well as crop subsidies.

“We don’t look for a handout, though we have to take it,” said Tillotson, one of a handful of people attending an event for Jacobs at Hi-Land Farms, a family-run dairy farm in Wyoming, New York. “I just hope he can see the plight of different people in New York.”

At a recent rally in Batavia, however, McMurray’s sup- porters were more vocal, chanting the candidate’s name through protective masks and waving campaign signs.

“We’ve had a bad streak of Chrises running for the Re- publicans,” said Michael Plitt, the Genesee County Democra- tic chairman, mentioning Collins, Jacobs and another local congressman, Chris Lee, who resigned in 2011 after sending a shirtless photo to a woman who was not his wife. “We need someone different: Nate.”

All told, about 50 people circled around as McMurray, wearing work boots, jeans and a dark plaid shirt, strode back and forth promising a victory on Tuesday.

“We can’t be timid, this is not a time for timidness,” he said. “Our country is at a crossroads, right? We’re at a crossro- ads. And if we don’t change things, it’s going to get worse.”

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