ALBANY, N.Y. — Emboldened Democrats on Thursday seized on GOP Congressman Chris Collins' arrest, saying it boosts their odds in a heavily Republican district this November — but it may take more than insider trading allegations to turn this red corner of western New York blue.
Collins pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges that he used inside information about a biotech company to help his family and friends avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses when one of the company's drugs failed in a medical trial. He's vowed to remain in the race, which pits the three-term House member against Nate McMurray, a local town supervisor.
McMurray's campaign took in "tens of thousands of dollars" in new contributions as well as a call from the Democratic National Committee following Collins' arrest, the candidate told reporters in Rochester. He said his opponent's arrest was the equivalent of adding "kerosene to the fire."
"We're going to be able to increase our staff, increase the boots on the ground," McMurray said. "We need the help, we need the energy."
The race had not been considered competitive by many observers, including those predicting a "blue wave" that gives Democrats control of the House. Republicans have a large registration advantage in the district, which includes suburban and rural areas between Buffalo and Rochester. The area backed President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly 25 percentage points in 2016, when Collins beat his Democratic challenger by more than 2-1.
Collins was one of the first House members to endorse Trump and seconded his nomination at the Republican convention. He has emerged as one of the president's staunchest defenders, calling for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the president and questions about Russia's involvement in his campaign.
Because of his close ties to Trump, Republicans may be willing to overlook the charges, especially since the outcome of the case likely is many months away, according to University at Buffalo political scientist Harvey Palmer. Palmer said Collins' supporters could also portray the prosecution as politically motivated, he said, especially if Trump himself rallies to Collins' defense with an endorsement or Tweet of support.
"It's not good news for Collins, but given the district, it may make the race more competitive but not a race you can count on swinging" to the Democrats, he said, adding that Collins' supporters may decide "Even if Collins has done something wrong, he's better than a Democrat."
Federal prosecutors charged Collins, his son and the father of his son's fiancee with conspiracy, securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. They allege that Collins gave his son inside information about Innate Immunotherapeutics' failed drug trial. Collins was the largest shareholder of the Sydney, Australia-based company.
Authorities say Collins' son later passed the information onto his fiancee's father. Both men then sold enough shares in the company to avoid $570,900 in losses. The company's stock plunged 92 percent once the trial's results were announced.
"I believe I acted properly and within the law at all times," Collins said. "I will mount a vigorous defense in court to clear my name. I look forward to being fully vindicated and exonerated."
He's not the first Congressional candidate in New York to have to answer questions about criminal allegations. Former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island resigned his seat and spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud in 2014. He attempted a comeback in this year's Republican primary but was defeated by incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan, who cited Trump's endorsement in his victory.
So far Collins' Republican allies are standing with him. State party Chairman Ed Cox said that while he was "disappointed" by the news of the arrest, "Chris deserves his day in court and we will wait to see what unfolds."