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Democrats Hope To Capitalize On Criminal Case Against Republican Rep. Chris Collins


Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the criminal case against a Republican lawmaker from New York. Congressman Chris Collins was arrested and charged with insider trading yesterday. And Democrats say Collins reflects a broader culture of corruption in the GOP. Now, that may sound familiar. Democrats waged a similar campaign a dozen years ago. And it helped them regain the majority in Congress. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hours after he pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of fraud conspiracy and lying to investigators, Congressman Chris Collins stood in front of TV cameras and declared he's not going anywhere.


CHRIS COLLINS: And I will remain on the ballot running for re-election this November.

HORSLEY: Collins, who was the first member of Congress to endorse President Trump, had been considered a shoo-in for re-election in his heavily Republican district outside Buffalo. But news of the indictment helped energize his Democratic challenger.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Nate, Nate, Nate, Nate.

HORSLEY: Nate McMurry suddenly found himself surrounded by the UAW hall by a boisterous group of supporters.


NATE MCMURRAY: I was a little surprised. Not too long ago, we had a press conference here. And there was nobody who showed up. So thank you all for coming.


HORSLEY: Even with the indictment, Collins remains a heavy favorite. But political handicapper Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections, says even if Collins wins his own race, there could be fallout elsewhere.

NATHAN GONZALES: Democrats don't need to defeat Chris Collins in order to get to the majority. But his indictment is keeping Republicans on the defensive in the news.

HORSLEY: Indeed, Democrats quickly seized on Collin's troubles as another example of ethical blinders in the GOP, which have already cost the jobs of three Trump cabinet members and driven several members of Congress into retirement. To be sure, neither party has a spotless record in this area. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez is seeking re-election after his bribery trial ended in a hung jury last year. But Nathan Gonzales notes Democrats successfully used GOP scandals in 2006 as a stepping stone to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.

GONZALES: Then the CCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel created the slogan the culture of corruption. And it was kind of a genius slogan because anything that anyone on the Republican side did wrong was kind of lumped under this umbrella.

HORSLEY: Nancy Pelosi, who became House speaker after Democrats took the majority, summed up their strategy that year with a memorable phrase.


NANCY PELOSI: You cannot advance the people's agenda unless you drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C.

HORSLEY: A decade later, that slogan was famously co-opted by Donald Trump. But Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who's part of the committee working to elect Democrats this year, complains that, far from draining the swamp, Trump built a hotel on it. And he went on to pocket more than $40 million from his D.C. hotel last year.

CHERI BUSTOS: We're here to serve the public. And if somehow people are getting rich off their position, then we have to take a deeper look at that.

HORSLEY: Democrats promise if they do regain their majorities in Congress, they'll push for stronger ethics legislation, including a requirement that the president sell off his business holdings. Nathan Gonzales says if Democrats can make that case stick, the charges against Congressman Collins could have ripple effects far beyond his suburban New York district.

GONZALES: I'm not convinced the average voter in Iowa or California is going to hold the Republican candidate responsible for what Congressman Collins did. But if it adds to the general sense that there needs to be a change, then I think it could benefit Democratic candidates.

HORSLEY: Gonzales thinks Democrats have a better-than-even chance to win the House this fall though the Senate remains an uphill climb. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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