Rep. Chris Collins' indictment on insider trading charges Wednesday morning has turned yet another safe Republican seat into a potential battleground in November's midterm elections.
The charges -- stemming from Collins' actions while at a congressional picnic at the White House last year -- led the House GOP's campaign arm to distance itself from Collins and what could be an unfolding ethics scandal.
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"These are very serious charges. We will let the facts come to light and trust the judicial system as we continue to assess his re-election campaign," said Matt Gorman, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Just hours after Collins' indictment, it's still far from clear what the political fallout will be. Collins was set to hold a news conference Wednesday evening. Lawyers for Collins said the congressman would be "completely vindicated."
"We will answer the charges filed against Congressman Collins in court and will mount a vigorous defense to clear his good name," Collins' attorneys, Jonathan Barr and Jonathan New, said in a statement. "It is notable that even the government does not allege that Congressman Collins traded a single share of Innate Therapeutics stock. We are confident he will be completely vindicated and exonerated."
Under New York law, it is difficult to extremely remove someone from the ballot after they have won their party's nomination -- as Collins did in last month's primary. Collins would remain on the ballot even if he resigns -- no matter the legal proceedings -- said New York Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin.
The only ways for Collins to be removed from the ballot, Conklin said, are death or accepting the GOP's nomination for a separate office -- typically a judgeship or a town position. "I don't think there's anything in New York law that puts him off the ballot, even if he was convicted," Conklin said.
Collins' 27th District, which spans through a stretch between Buffalo and Rochester in western New York, has been a Republican stronghold in recent years. President Donald Trump won there by 24 percentage points in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried it by 12 points in 2012.
Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump's presidential campaign, and won re-election by 34 points in 2016.
However, a congressional ethics probe has long swirled around Collins. That's why the district had already been one of the 111 on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "target list" of seats that could be in play.
The Democratic candidate facing Collins is Nate McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor. He has just $82,000 in the bank at the end of the 2018's second quarter compared to Collins' $1.3 million -- in part because the race was, until now, not seen as particularly competitive.
With Collins' indictment, "unprecedented grassroots energy, and the strong candidacy of Nate McMurray, this seat is firmly in play for Democrats," DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly said.
In a statement Wednesday, McMurray said Collins' indictment was "shocking and sad, but not surprising."
"This has been unfolding, piece by piece, for many months," McMurray said. "Anyone who's been paying attention knows what's going on. And now the jig is up, because no matter how this is spun, it's clear that the swamp is alive and well in Washington, DC"
Others have won re-election while under ethical clouds in the past: New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is up for re-election this fall after his trial on federal corruption charges last year ended in a hung jury. Former New York Rep. Michael Grimm was re-elected in 2012 amid an investigation into a straw donor scheme, and again in 2014 during a tax evasion probe. He resigned in early 2015. And former Louisiana Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson was re-elected in 2006 months after the FBI raided his congressional offices -- though he was indicted in 2007 and lost in 2008.
For Republicans, there is also the bigger-picture concern that fallout from Collins' indictment could extend beyond his district.
The Collins indictment evoked memories of 2006, the last Democratic midterm wave election, when another scandal caused political damage for House Republicans. That year, Florida GOP Rep. Mark Foley was forced to resign in late September after sending sexually suggestive messages to teenage boys who had been congressional pages. Republican leaders' handling of the scandal turned it into one with a broad impact on the GOP in that year's elections.
Other GOP lawmakers had also invested in Innate Immunotherapeutics Limited, the Australian company at the center of the charges Collins faces, and where he was a board member. Among those who have listed shares in the company on their financial disclosures are Texas Rep. John Culberson, whose Houston-area seat is a major November battleground, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former House member from Georgia.
Collins' charges "throws their shady backroom dealings into sharp relief," the DCCC's Kelly said. "Their actions clearly require close scrutiny and their voters deserve answers."
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