GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. — In August, Representative Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president, was indicted on federal insider trading charges. Yet last week, voters appeared to have re-elected him by a narrow margin: As of Monday, he was leading by fewer than 3,000 votes, with nearly 18,000 ballots, including absentee and affidavit ballots, left to count.
But Mr. Collins’s likely re-election while under criminal indictment is possibly not the most unusual thing about his political career. Equally remarkable was his swift transformation from a mainstream, fiscally conservative Republican into a cheerleader for Mr. Trump and his hard-right brand of nationalism.
A decade ago, Mr. Collins was the executive of Erie County, where I live. He was a typical Republican. The county’s finances were in disarray, and Mr. Collins, a successful entrepreneur and engineer, campaigned as a technocrat, pledging to “run government like a business.” He hired consultants devoted to Six Sigma, the management fad popularized by Jack Welch at General Electric, and promised to give the bureaucracy a business school shakedown and maybe lower taxes to boot.
Chris Collins was not a populist radical. He was a boring Mitt Romney Republican with a dash of Tea Party.
His efforts at reform in the midst of the financial crisis failed, and Mr. Collins lost his re-election bid in 2011. But in 2012, he narrowly defeated the Democratic representative in the 27th Congressional District, who had won in a special election after the Republican incumbent had resigned in a sexting scandal.
At the time, people wondered why the guy who said he was a “chief executive, not a chief politician,” even wanted the job.
During his first term, Mr. Collins was a little-known backbencher. The 27th District, which encircles the Democratic stronghold of Buffalo, consists of upscale exurbs, lakeshore communities and farmland with more cows than people. His constituents were happy for him to be a reliable Republican vote and little more — he won re-election with over two-thirds of the vote in both 2014 and 2016 — and his legislative accomplishments were largely limited to naming post offices.
Until Donald Trump. Whatever motivated his endorsement, Mr. Collins traded in his reserved character for a MAGA cap and went all in, becoming a fixture on Fox News during the campaign, and then championing Mr. Trump’s nominees and policies after the election. The chief executive had become the chief apologist.
We now know that Mr. Collins used his assignments on the House Energy and Commerce Committees to give stock tips to fellow congressmen and promote legislation beneficial to his health care industry investments. According to the federal indictment, Mr. Collins made a phone call urging family members to dump shares of a pharmaceutical company before news of a failed drug test was made public during a June 2017 picnic at the White House.
In the midterms, Mr. Collins’s Democratic opponent was Nate McMurray, the supervisor of my small town, Grand Island. I know Nate, but then everyone here knows Nate. Buffalo is the kind of place where we expect to bump into our politicians and professional athletes in the grocery store, and we see nothing rude in stopping them to talk about the game last Sunday. This is especially true on Grand Island.
Despite this, Chris Collins said I should fear Nate — because he speaks Korean. A Collins campaign ad that ran just days before the election shows a video of Mr. McMurray bowing and speaking in Korean in slow motion. Beneath him runs a subtitle warning that Mr. McMurray “worked to send jobs to China and Korea.” In the background an image of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, flashes by. “You can take Nate McMurray at his word,” warns the ad. His Korean word.
Yet Mr. McMurray, who is married to a Korean woman, never said anything in the video about jobs, and there is no evidence he ever “worked to send” American jobs overseas. He posted the video himself on YouTube in June as a gesture of international good will before President Trump’s nuclear summit with Mr. Kim.
Mr. Collins was implicitly attacking Mr. McMurray’s Korean wife and his Korean-speaking children. That’s not how things normally work on Grand Island. “Big island, small town” goes the saying. It’s Republican in a keep-my-taxes-low sort of way. Mr. McMurray won his supervisor position by only 14 votes, but in a race where the worst high jinks involved stealing opponent’s lawn signs. (Disclosure: my wife, Jessica Castner, while not a paid member of his staff, has been Mr. McMurray’s science adviser for environmental issues.)
A charismatic campaigner, Mr. McMurray crisscrossed the district and likely met many of the people who voted for him. Mr. Collins dropped out of the race after being indicted, then got back in, did almost no campaigning, spoke to only one or two friendly members of the news media, has never held a town hall and has sworn he never will. He’s not around to stop at the grocery store.
Yet he appears to have won in this district that cast 59 percent of its votes for Donald Trump in 2016.
Our country’s tribalism was on full display in the 27th, with party loyalty, or Trump loyalty, apparently overcoming consideration of the quality and character of the individual candidates. Some of his critics say that Mr. Collins was always a corrupt, casual racist, that Donald Trump merely unleashed what was always inside. I don’t know. All I do know is that I don’t recognize the former country executive, or his party at all.
Brian Castner is the author of, most recently, “Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage.”
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