Politics

1st House Member to Back Trump Vindicated by N.Y. Win

But Chris Collins isn't expecting a rush of lawmakers to join him

Chris Collins addressed Republican front-runner Donald Trump's Buffalo rally Monday. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Rep. Chris Collins isn't saying, "I told you so," but he could if he wanted to.  

The New York Republican was the first member of Congress  to endorse billionaire Donald Trump for president — a lonely position back in February but one that seems prescient the morning after Trump swept New York's primary and moved closer to clinching the GOP nomination.  

Since his endorsement, Collins has made the media rounds and served as an honorary co-chair of Trump's New York campaign. He also co-chairs Trump's committee to garner congressional support.  

But despite Tuesday's victory, Collins doesn't expect a public wave of congressional endorsements to follow.  

"We have a lot of House support for Donald Trump," he said. "These aren’t people that are going to stand up and endorse him.”  

Collins acknowledged that lawmakers in tight races do not want to be tied to some of GOP front-runner's statements. That doesn't indicate problems with Trump, Collins said in a Tuesday morning interview, but is a consequence of lawmakers wanting to maintain focus on their own candidacies.  

"When you’re running your own campaign, that’s your focus and you don’t want to be distracted,” Collins said. "When you formally endorse someone, you’re actually involved in their campaign.”  

Collins, himself, disagrees with Trump's proposal to ban Muslims temporarily from coming into the country and his call to deport an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, but he aligns with Trump "philosophically," and believes the businessman can revitalize the economy.  

“I’m sure my opponent is going to bring up some of Mr. Trump’s positions and say by endorsing him that’s where I am,” Collins said. "I’m not as worried about those issues."  

Collins will face Democratic businesswoman Diana Kastenbaum in November, but the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the Western New York district as Safe Republican . Though he may not have to worry about re-election, he has earned newfound fame as Trump's first congressional backer.  

[Trump Fires Up Buffalo Before NY Primary] Collins often says America needs a "chief executive not a chief politician," which was his 2007 campaign slogan for Erie County executive. A successful businessman, Collins ran when the county faced a fiscal crisis, with parks and other facilities shuttered.  

"I know what it’s like to take private sector leadership skills into the public sector,” Collins said. He lost his re-election bid in 2011, and set his sights on Congress. Collins narrowly unseated Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul in 2012, and garnered 71 percent of the vote in 2014.  

Hochul, now the state's Lieutenant Governor, wasn't surprised by Collins' endorsement.  

“This is sort of two Western New Yorks. We’re in the urban area of Buffalo, which is definitely strong Hillary [Clinton] country … And then you get to the more rural area which is my congressional district,” Hochul said after she addressed Clinton volunteers canvassing in Buffalo .  

"It’s a more traditional Republican area … And certainly [Trump] does have appeal," Hochul said.  

Collins' sprawling 27th district, surrounds Buffalo and its immediate suburbs, and includes 105 towns. The district has about 477,000 registered voters, with Republicans making up the largest swath at about 39 percent.  

Driving through the rural district, you're more likely to see lawn signs decrying the state's gun regulation law than a Trump campaign sign. But the Manhattan businessman's message resonates here.  

“Loved it, loved it,” Suzanne Lazzara, 49, a Trump supporter from Elma said of Collins' decision to back her candidate.  

Thousands attended Donald Trump's rally in Buffalo on Monday. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Thousands attended Donald Trump's rally in Buffalo on Monday. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Brandon Zarbo, a self-described moderate Republican from North Tonawanda who attended Trump's rally on Monday, also applauded Collins' endorsement.  

“I haven’t really agreed with a lot of what Chris Collins does but if he supports Trump, awesome," Zarbo said. "That would be a step in the right direction for him."  

Not everyone was happy about Collins' endorsement, though.  

Genesee County GOP Chairman Richard Seibert said some members of his committee were critical of Collins’ decision when they recently weighed whether to back the congressman for re-election. Three members ended up voting against endorsing Collins because of it, but 88 still supported him.  

Some locals have likened Collins to Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, a key Trump ally who has also pressured members of Congress to back the businessman. Paladino said he helped convince Collins  to endorse the Republican front-runner. Collins had previously backed Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.  

Collins said it "didn't hurt" that Paladino was backing Trump, but that he reached the conclusion on his own after Bush dropped out of the race.  

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .    

   

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