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First-term Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen C. Hochul conceded to Republican challenger Chris Collins early this morning after their torrid race for the 27th District ended in one of the closest congressional finishes in Western New York history.

“Early this morning I called Chris Collins and congratulated him on being elected to Congress,” Hochul said in a statement emailed about 2 a.m. to The Buffalo News.

“I encouraged him to work across the aisle and offered to assist him in any way I can,” Hochul said. “I also volunteered to help him make a smooth transition in January to ensure our constituents are well served. Congress can do better, and the people of this country deserve better than what Washington has given them.”

Collins’ lead over Hochul was by the slimmest of margins – 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, with all the votes tallied that were cast at the polls.

In raw numbers, that was Collins with 150,446 to Hochul’s 146,134.

There are 12,720 absentee ballots yet to be counted by the Collins campaign has said the party affiliations of those who returned them appeared to favor the Repubican candidate.

A couple of hours earlier, Collins declared victory, as results showed he was narrowly ahead on his home turf of Erie County, as well as in several rural counties – again by minuscule percentages.

Collins had claimed narrow wins in Orleans County (6,874 to 6,248), Genesee County (11,508 to 10,755), Monroe County (6,2324 to 5,954), and Wyoming County (8,203 to 6.603) with 50 percent of the vote counted.

Collins believes voters in Erie County recognized he was the better candidate because of the “great progress” he made as county executive from 2008-11, especially in the realm of fiscal responsibility.

“It’s been a long night,” Collins said. “This was a hard-fought race. We were on message. We were disciplined.”

“This was a comeback for the ages,” Collins told the crowd at the GOP victory party. “People declared us dead and buried 12 months ago.”

Collins told reporters after his speech, “I’m going to be a voice for conservative values of growing our way to prosperity, and we’ll have to see how that goes. But I will be in the majority in Congress. I know I’m going to have a substantial role to play there, and all I can do is do my best fighting for our children, our grandchildren, and trying to do my best to get this country moving in the right direction.”

On hearing that President Obama had won re-election, he said, “I was looking forward to working with President Romney but now it will be my job to work with President Obama,” Collins said. “We won’t let him add 6 trillion dollars to the nation’s debt.”

Collins said he’s close with many top GOP leaders in the House and expects to be appointed to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“It’s unusual for a freshman, but I don’t have a usual resume,” Collins said.

Collins also explained he has no additional political ambitions once he gets to the House, however, won’t shy away from a leadership position, if he’s asked to assume one at some point.

“I will do whatever I’m asked to do to help this country. I’ll do my best to help the 27th District.”

“We’re going to have to work together for the benefit of this country.”

It was a much happier scene in 2012 for Collins, obviously. Clad in his classic dark suit and bright red tie, Collins beamed when talking about his victory Tuesday. He had a cellphone in his hand just before 1:30 a.m. Kathy Hochul was expected to call him.

He attributed his loss in his November 2011 race for re-election as Erie County Executive to Mark C. Poloncarz to an overwhelming Democratic populous being “satisfied” with the job he did to save the county from economic peril. They viewed his job as done, effectively, according to Collins.

“Once it was fixed, they hired one of their own to run [Erie County],” Collins said of last year’s voters.

Collins said, in retrospect, his slim loss last year proved to be an blessing unknown at the time.

“Think about everything that had to happen for me to be now doing this – how the dominoes had to fall,” Collins said.

Collins adviser Christopher M. Grant said late Tuesday that the campaign was “cautiously optimistic” as the former county executive was pulling ahead in Erie County, which he called a “surprise.”

“What’s left are areas that are doing well for Collins,” Grant said. “It’s not a done deal, but we are cautiously optimistic that we will go to bed tonight with the knowledge that Chris has a great shot to be the next congressman.”

But as new scrutiny focuses on the 12,720 absentee ballots (with more expected to arrive by mail today), Republicans feel heartened if those votes are to decide the election. Grant said initial examination of the absentees showed an approximate 8 percent advantage for Republicans.

“We feel very good about that number because the district is 40 percent Republican and 32 percent Democrat,” he said. “So that’s a pretty significant number.”

By the time Collins first expressed interest in the race back in February, his effort to unseat Hochul gained national attention. Republicans have viewed the seat as their own, occupying it for generations until Hochul’s upset victory last year in a special election. As of this year’s reapportionment, it morphed into a vast district taking in all or parts of eight counties stretching to Canandaigua.

Collins emerged as the Republican candidate after several others eyeing the seat dropped out. He then handily beat Iraq War veteran David Bellavia in a June GOP primary to become the candidate.

Collins brought strong credentials to the race, as well as $600,000 of his own money loaned to the campaign. But his rationale for running has always been that the new district eliminated Erie County’s Democratic strongholds like the City of Buffalo, which voted heavily against him when he lost his re-election bid for county executive in 2011.

Republicans outnumber Democrats by 8 percentage points, but unaffiliated voters make up 25 percent of the district.

As a result, the former Erie County executive launched a campaign that constantly linked Hochul to President Obama, whom polls found unpopular throughout the district. He railed against “Obamacare” – especially in three televised debates – while appealing to Republican voters by emphasizing his devotion to presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his policies.

The national attention reached all the way to House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who established one of his “victory centers” in the district to help identify and turn out votes and who appeared at a Collins fund raiser in Clarence in October.

Ultimately, about $5 million in advertising saturated television sets in Buffalo and Rochester, much of it sponsored by independent Super PACs headquartered fin Washington. One ad sponsored by Hochul, however, proved especially controversial, claiming Collins fired 150 workers when his investment group took over Buffalo China, a company that already announced it was closing.

Several new organizations, including The Buffalo News, found the claim to be false. But Hochul continued to stand by the veracity of the ad.

While pro-Collins television ads portrayed Hochul at the White House in conversation with Obama, Hochul responded by emphasizing her “independence.” She also tried at times to distance herself from the president, pointing out several votes against his policies and opposition to some aspects of the Affordable Care Act such as taxing the sale of medical devices.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com