Western New York’s bucolic charm, calmer pace, and lower cost of living often draw visitors from New York City. For the unaccustomed, the MAGA signs and occasional Confederate flags in residents’ front yards can come as a rude surprise. But the state of New York is vast and diverse, and its 27th congressional district is particularly enormous: It’s home to around 713,000 people and encompasses Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, and Livingston counties, as well as parts of Erie, Monroe, Niagara, and Ontario, most of Buffalo’s eastern and southern suburbs, most of Rochester’s southern suburbs, and farm country to the east and south.
Amber Hainey, a local progressive activist who has spent most of her life in Livingston County, said in a phone conversation that what it lacks in racial diversity (it’s 92 percent white) it makes up for in socioeconomic diversity. Many residents work in agriculture, the service industry—Walmart and Wegmans are top employers—or county or local government. Some are scraping by, some are solidly middle class, and some live in suburban McMansions.
Around 42 percent of registered voters in NY 27 are Republicans or Conservatives; about one-third are Democrats. Trump won the district by nearly 60 percent, the highest percentage in New York state. Yet even with gerrymandering, parts have gone blue in the past: Niagara County residents voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 (in 2016, they went for Trump by a margin of nearly 18 percent).
From 2013 to 2019, Chris Collins was the district’s representative; in 2016, he distinguished himself by becoming the first member of Congress to endorse Trump for president. Collins resigned in October, shortly before pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and lying to federal investigators and after over a year of maintaining his innocence.
Collins’ resignation has left NY 27 with an open seat. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has enraged area Republicans by suggesting he might hold a special election to fill it on the same day as the 2020 presidential primary—a likely boost to Democrats, thanks to voter turnout.
Former Grand Island town supervisor Nate McMurray, who challenged Collins in 2018, was, until recently, the only Democrat in the race; Melodie Baker, who recently took a leave of absence as the director of education for the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, threw in her hat in November. As a 38-year-old black woman and first-time candidate who credits former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams with inspiring her to run, she believes that now is her moment: “There is a lot of energy and excitement around minority women candidates,” she told me in a recent phone conversation—but so far, she appears to lack the name recognition of McMurray, who has been covered extensively by the local press since 2017.
McMurray lost to Collins by only 1,087 votes in 2018—a margin that retired psychologist and McMurray supporter Celia Spacone said in a phone call was “nothing short of spectacular.” Spacone “knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls” for McMurray when he ran against Collins. “Collins was indicted on felony charges,” she said, “and people still didn’t want to hear about a Democratic candidate.” An August 2019 poll conducted in the district found that 60 percent of Republican primary voters retained a favorable view of Collins even while he was under federal indictment and 81 percent held a favorable view of Trump.
In the coming months, the congressional district’s eight county Democratic chairs will select a candidate to run in the special election. Seven of the eight chairs have endorsed McMurray, giving him the 51 percent support he needs. Given the population of Erie County, an endorsement from Erie County Democratic Committee Chair Jeremy Zellner counts for the other 49 percent.
So far, Zellner has been coy, pointedly noting that he’s “certainly not moved by the other county chairs.” Speculation abounds that McMurray may have rubbed certain people—namely Zellner—the wrong way during his 2018 campaign. McMurray answered questions about this gingerly: “The party rank and file” and rural county chairs support him “in huge numbers,” he said, adding, “Party politics, for a lot, is about ring kissing and groveling your way up…. I’m not a ring kisser; I’m not a groveler.”
Zellner’s reluctance to wholeheartedly back McMurray, whom he is ultimately expected to endorse, may also tie into his own political ambitions. Local party officials characterize McMurray as a left-wing firebrand who could hurt down-ballot candidates in “purple” areas—the type of candidate Zellner recently expressed interest in becoming. (Zellner may run to replace Tonawanda State Assembly member Robin Schimminger, a conservative Democrat, when he retires.)
Given the support McMurray has earned, Baker’s path to victory is steep (she would need to secure Zellner’s support and persuade at least one other county chair to switch their allegiance from McMurray to her). Assuming there is a special election, whoever is chosen to run could potentially be challenged in a June primary and will have to run again in November 2020. Baker said that if McMurray is tapped to run but loses the special election, she will challenge him in June. And if he wins the special election? “I’m a team player,” she said. “I’ll back him up.”
There are also Republican contenders for Collins’s seat. They include New York State Senator Rob Ortt, who was indicted on felony corruption charges in 2017 that were later dismissed, former Darien town justice Beth Parlato, United Healthcare administrator Frank C. Smierciak II, and New York state Senator Chris Jacobs, whose family controls a business worth billions. (GOP Chrises, beware: Eight years before Collins resigned, Representative Chris Lee, who represented the neighboring district of NY 26, resigned after a shirtless photo he sent a woman surfaced online.) Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, a staunch Trump ally who calls McMurray “a radical progressive who makes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez look conservative,” is also expected to run.
The Republican candidates have been competing over who is most loyal to Trump. That strategy doesn’t worry McMurray, who says Trump has betrayed his supporters—and Western New York communities are beginning to realize it. When we met in Buffalo, McMurray, a 43-year-old white man who looks every inch the Eagle Scout he once was, likened NY 27 to “a Norman Rockwell painting after a few years of decline.” Western New York, he said, “is in the same condition a lot of Southern communities are that voted very strongly for Trump.” Supporting Trump, McMurray said, was “a Hail Mary.” After all, he made a lot of promises that sounded great, especially to residents of job-starved areas.
But the show that worked so well in 2016 is getting old: “If you put diesel fuel in a regular engine, it will go for a few blocks, but eventually it seizes,” said McMurray. “And that’s kind of the situation we’re in. He gave a lot of false hope, and that false hope is running out.”
GOP leaders and local right-wing radio hosts have been branding McMurray a far-left extremist since 2018, characterizing his support of Medicare for All and the legalization of marijuana as too radical for the district. McMurray rejects that notion. “Everybody wants legalization,” he told me bluntly. As for health care, he said, “I would win over whole rooms of Republicans that hated me by talking about Medicare for All.”
Melodie Baker, McMurray’s Democratic rival, described her own views as “moderate” and echoed Republicans’ and conservative Democrats’ contention that McMurray is “too far left” for NY 27. She supports the Second Amendment, and wants to be “careful about marijuana,” but thinks it could function “as an economic driver in more challenged communities, especially to create more resources for farmers.” As for health care, she favors “Medicare for those who want it,” which would retain private insurance; in rural communities, she added, “they just want health care, however it’s packaged.”
McMurray favors a ban on assault weapons. Amber Hainey, the local activist who supports McMurray, said that in a district full of folks in “God, Guns & Trump” T-shirts, supporting regulation of any kind could be a liability. “Lots of people agree there should be some regulation,” she said, “but a small but loud, vocal minority opposes any regulation.” She added that while residents are generally hostile to Democrats, “Bernie resonated more locally…. having medical insurance when you’re sick—that resonated.” McMurray cited Sanders as “a huge inspiration,” though his own views are closer to Elizabeth Warren’s; he said he shares Warren’s belief that “we need to save capitalism.” Baker, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, acknowledged the local interest in Sanders, “especially with his position on health care.”
Both McMurray and Baker emphasized that the district is more diverse than many realize. McMurray talked about the “huge, underreported” population of migrant workers who are “essential” to the region’s dairy industry. Baker said NY 27 is “more diverse than what the numbers say,” because people from the Middle East are counted as white. Many residents, she said, have been negatively affected by Trump policies like the Muslim travel ban.
For McMurray, Trump’s election proved that in today’s America, “people value sincerity and authenticity over ideology.” We know “who Donald Trump is,” he said. “And people like me don’t like him, but other people like him because at least they know what they’re getting.”
Now secular but raised Mormon, McMurray seems genuinely grieved that America has strayed “from the values that have made us such a happy people.” But he isn’t deterred by the dark turn in national politics. “Politics is about conviction,” he said. He plans to meet with area gun clubs, explain his position, and say to members, “Look, I respect you guys, I understand that you might not agree with me, but I’m going to tell you how I feel so at least you get my point.”
“Somehow the Republican Party has associated itself with being pro-America,” he said. “I wave the flag at my rallies…that’s our flag.” Representing America at its best is powerful, he added. “I think if more progressives focused on that, you’d see a wave of people come back to the Democratic Party.”