One year ago today, Chris Collins found himself wallowing in a self-described “funk” – his promising political career in tatters.
The Republican county executive had just lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz. A return to politics, he acknowledged, appeared unlikely.
But now the spotlight shines once again on the businessman-turned-politician following Tuesday’s superslim victory over Democratic incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul in the 27th Congressional District. Though barely winning the most Republican district in New York State, Collins has suddenly resurrected from the political ash heap in a most spectacular way.
As a result, Mr. Collins is going to Washington.
“This win is the best, because many people said we were down and out – in fact, dead on arrival,” he told reporters early Wednesday morning. “I talked to my wife and kids and decided that this would be a good place for me to be.
“We all look at our book of life. I look at this as one of my last couple of chapters now, going to Washington.”
But the victory fails to merit any superlative labels like “stunning” or even “impressive.” He won with 50.8 percent to Hochul’s 49.2 percent – one of the narrowest congressional margins in local history – even while President Obama lost the district by 15 points.
He believes that his own message combined with Hochul’s “Buffalo China” ad that “backfired on her” produced a victory that, one way or another, is now sending him to the House of Representatives.
“I think it was the ad,” he said, referring to the controversial spot that accused him of firing 150 workers when his investment group took over Buffalo China. “It aggravated people, and in Erie County, they knew better.
“She should have pulled the ad and moved on to something else,” he added. “It just went a little too far.”
Steven A. Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena Research Institute poll commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV, noted that poll results favoring Hochul began to reverse once the ad aired and several media outlets, including The News, deemed it false.
“There is no empirical evidence to prove it, but it’s certainly a theory for which one can make a strong case,” Greenberg said.
Collins pointed to winning Erie County, 51 to 49 percent, as one of the reasons he carried the district. And Greenberg agreed that while polls in August and early October showed Hochul with far more favorable ratings, Siena’s November survey indicated that Collins had reversed the trend and was viewed significantly better.
“Hochul had some good will among marginal Republicans over the course of the campaign,” Greenberg said. “She largely lost that.
“[The ads] took away the good will and moved Republicans to be much more unfavorable toward Hochul.”
And because Hochul started off with the disadvantage of competing in a very Republican district, he said that it was only a matter of time before the negative ads aired by Republicans took hold with GOP and independent voters.
“What the campaign and all the negative commercials did was solidify the voters for each party around their candidate,” Greenberg said.
The congressman-elect said he is well aware that area political observers often label him “arrogant,” with a “my way or the highway” attitude. But he said that those who know him best dispute that view, adding he is ready for collegial work on Capitol Hill.
“People have put out a narrative about me time and again that is really not me,” Collins said. “It’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ Life is not like that. I can only prove that through my actions going forward.
“I understand,” he added, “that people are watching, that people prejudge, and that people misjudge.”
Collins now says he can turn from his traditional role as executive to becoming one of 435 members of the House.
“I understand it will be a different role, but the good news is that I’ll be in the majority,” he said.
“Now I must be respectful of other members and be cognizant as a freshman that Washington works differently.
“You study the landscape and respect what the rules are,” he said, “and I’m very good at that.”
Hochul, meanwhile, said she takes pride in running so strongly in an overwhelmingly Republican district. She said she knew when first viewing new district boundaries early this year that enormous obstacles blocked her road to re-election.
Many political articles in Washington, she noted, pronounced her “toast.”
But losing by only about 4,000 votes, and bucking the backlash against the president proved “significant,” she said.
“We had more than $2 million in ads from Super PACs outside the area that were mostly false,” she said.
She again stood by the Buffalo China ad but will not dwell on rehashing a campaign effort that came oh-so-close to succeeding.
“I didn’t have enough votes,” she said. “The voters chose Chris Collins, and I accept that. I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback.”
Hochul said she does not leave Washington with bitter feelings.
“Setting aside the negative and personal attacks, I had the opportunity to go through the district and meet all kinds of people, and found it incredible,” she said.
Hochul said she will now concentrate on the remaining two months of her term and said that she considers her 18 months in Congress “the highest honor of my life.”
“Democracy worked,” she said. “This is how we choose our leaders. I walk away with pride.”
Collins said Wednesday that he knew from the outset he was facing an experienced and skilled campaigner.
That remains a prime reason, he said, he won by such a slim margin on solid GOP turf.
“To give Kathy her due, … I’ve never seen anyone work harder,” he said. “I’ve got to give her kudos as one of the best constituent-service members of Congress ever elected.”
Coming Friday: Erie County vote tabulations email: firstname.lastname@example.org