At the start of 2018, most residents of New York’s rural 27th Congressional District assumed their local GOP Congressmember, multimillionaire Chris Collins, would coast to re-election in this strongly Republican district. But that changed in early August when Collins was indicted for insider trading and lying to the FBI. Those political tremors became seismic waves in September when Collins rejected the pleas of local GOP leaders to drop out so they could nominate a less ethically-challenged candidate. All of a sudden his Democratic opponent, Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, whose grassroots campaign had drawn little national attention beforehand, found himself in the middle of a new Red-to-Blue opportunity as money and support began rolling in.
Collins is one of Trump’s earliest and most strident supporters, so when he found himself facing an unexpected loss, he fell back on the tried and true tactics of his mentor and the modern GOP: racism, lies and personal attacks. Collins first attacked McMurray, whose wife is Asian-American, by showing a video of him speaking Korean and intentionally mistranslating McMurray’s words to falsely claim he worked to outsource jobs. The ad was widely criticized for its racist overtones and lies, so Collins came back with a second attack ad that criticized McMurray for supporting single-payer health care. And Collins’ third ad falsely hit McMurray by taking his comments about Donald Trump out of context. With his personal wealth against McMurray’s underfunded campaign, Collins had the airwaves entirely to himself, and he used it entirely on misleading, negative advertising.
Then something amazing happened.
With new attention on the race, McMurray was able to raise funds for a poll, with very surprising results: despite the strongly Republican inclinations of the district and McMurray’s low-budget campaign, McMurray had moved into a 42-42 dead heat with Collins. Collins’ attack ads appeared to have only raised McMurray’s name recognition, and the voters – no matter their ideology – were rejecting Collins’ racism, dishonesty, and attacks on health care. These results were confirmed by a subsequent Siena Poll, leading to McMurray being named to the DCCC’s Red to Blue program with just a few weeks left in the campaign.
Across the country, Democrats like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Christine Pellegrino in New York and Doug Jones in Alabama are winning in Republican turf by rewriting the script on how races are won, running proudly populist campaigns that reject corruption and corporate control of Washington, and standing up to special interests on issues like jobs and healthcare.
Many of these races are easily dismissed as outliers because of the specific failings of the GOP candidates involved. In McMurray’s case, his poll found that 90% of the voters sampled had heard, seen or read about Collins’ indictment. But the desire to drain the swamp may be more desirable than the leadership in either party is willing to admit. Voters in districts like New York’s 27th, who voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, appear to view corruption on both sides of the aisle as the true enemy.
Politics aside, McMurray’s slow-and-steady grassroots approach laid a foundation that no one saw coming. Before anyone else thought he was viable, he was doing the hard work that makes democracy run, spending months going from one small town event to another; introducing himself to farmers, families and small business owners; and talking at every gathering or union picnic that would let him.
Collins’ indictment put McMurray’s campaign on the map for a political establishment that had dismissed him only weeks before. Collins’ negative advertising was the catalyst that gave Nate the boost he needed to pull dead even with less than a month to go. But McMurray’s willingness to run in what many saw as a hopeless race, and work tirelessly because it was simply the right thing to do, are the true foundations of a red-to-blue opportunity that could significantly reshape politics in 2019 and beyond.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.