Nate McMurray doesn’t like ‘giant super PACs.’ But will they be his unlikely salvation?

Democratic congressional candidate getting national attention after Chris Collins’ flame-out

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This article is co-published by WBFO-FM 88.7 and WBEN-AM 930.

Nate McMurray wanted nothing to do with the kind of big-money politics that typify competitive congressional races.

“My campaign will be funded by gifts from ordinary people, not giant SuperPACs or special interest groups,” declared McMurray, the Democratic nominee for New York’s 27th District U.S. House seat, on his website’s fundraising page. Elsewhere on his site, he adds “wealthy financiers” to his no-no list.

McMurray, 43, seemingly had little to lose in making such statements. His race was thoroughly uncompetitive, written off by most state and national Democrats. To them, McMurray represented little more than jobber fodder for cash-flush incumbent Chris Collins, a Republican who represents a Western New York district President Donald Trump carried by 24 percentage points.

Believing McMurray could beat Collins was akin to believing the hometown Buffalo Sabres — who finished last in the National Hockey League during the 2017-18 season — could win next year’s Stanley Cup.

Then, on Wednesday, everything changed.

That was the day the feds arrested Collins and charged him with securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. McMurray’s phone blew up — with new friends, congressmen, aides to previously down-on-McMurray New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Within 24 hours, “tens of thousands of dollars” poured in from the country’s four corners, including $1,000 from Trump nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, McMurray told the Center for Public Integrity. Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which McMurray said Saturday had little for him previously, declared New York’s 27th District race “firmly in play for Democrats.”

“It’s been a life saver for us,” McMurray said by phone Saturday. “It’s become more of a national campaign overnight.”

Consider that McMurray’s campaign had only collected less than $134,000 for the entire election cycle through June 30, according to federal records — roughly a dime for every dollar Collins had raised.

More money could be on its way. A lot more — regardless of whether McMurray wants the kind of cash that may be arriving.

Representatives of two Democratic super PACs and one special interest liberal PAC tell the Center for Public Integrity they’re now open to supporting McMurray as Collins, who on Saturday suspended his campaign, is en route to federal court instead of the U.S. Capitol. Democrats need to flip 23 seats in November to wrest control of the U.S. House from Republicans.

Several potential replacements for Collins have emerged — most notably, for the moment, former New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and Erie County Comptroller and former TV journalist Stefan Mychajliw — but local Republican leaders have yet to coalesce behind a candidate with Election Day just 12 weeks away. For now, Collins remains in office. His name still appears on the ballot.

“It’s a game changing event,” said Jeb Fain of House Majority PAC, a top Democratic super PAC. “We’ll be taking a look.”

“The race had not been on our radar,” said Adam Bozzi of End Citizens United PAC, which generally backs candidates who advocate for campaign finance regulations and, as a traditional political action committee, may accept donations of only up to $5,000 per year from each donor. “But now, we’re going to begin to evaluate it.”

Another leading Democratic super PAC also isn’t ruling out involving itself in McMurray’s race.

“We’re still deciding which House races we’ll be active in. Nothing to announce at this point,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for super PAC Priorities USA Action, which spent more than $132 million backing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential effort.

Support from super PACs — such groups may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates — could mean the difference between McMurray winning the race or simply getting close but losing.

Democratic super PACs considering supporting McMurray follow federal law that mandates they disclose the identities of their donors, and they receive most of their money from individuals — generally “wealthy financier” types that McMurray has decried. Billionaire businessman George Soros alone has given Priorities USA Action $5 million since March, federal records indicate.

But these super PACs have together also accepted tens of millions of dollars in so-called “dark money” — cash that can’t be traced to a human source — in the years since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. Much of this “dark money” comes from labor unions, but some has come from “social welfare” nonprofit groups and corporate entities, who themselves don’t volunteer the sources of their money.

A recent example: During the 2017-2018 election cycle, Priorities USA Action accepted more than $100,000 from liberal super PAC Senate Majority PAC, which in turn received $250,000 in June from the San Pablo Lytton Casino in California, according to FEC records.

McMurray’s moment of truth may therefore come quickly: Will this candidate who loves touting broadband expansion, marijuana legalization and agriculture policy reform welcome super PAC support if super PACs offer it? Is support from certain kinds of super PACs — all such groups may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates — more tolerable than others?

“I have to balance it,” said McMurray, who today serves as supervisor for Grand Island, a town situated in the Niagara River a few miles short of Niagara Falls. “But I’m not going to sell out. Nobody owns me."

In practice, McMurray says, that means he will welcome support from super PACs funded by unions or unions themselves. “I’m a big union supporter,” he said.

But he chafed at the notion of secret money or corporate money somehow boosting his political fortunes, particularly when he says his campaign is dedicated to improving the lives of those without much money at all.

“Dark money in a political campaign is ruining our country,” McMurray said, “and I don’t want it.”

Nevertheless, “giant super PACs” with their “wealthy financiers” and “dark money” may be coming to his aid anyway.

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