ALBANY — Top Republican officials have been wary to publicly back Rep. Chris Collins as he continues to pursue re-election, but it may not matter much: He can remain on the ballot if he wants to.
Collins, R-Clarence, Erie County, has vowed to run for re-election this fall despite being arrested Wednesday and charged with 11 felonies tied to an alleged insider-trading scheme.
GOP officials at the national, state and county level, however, have offered little public support for the embattled congressman, with Erie County GOP Chair Nick Langworthy saying Thursday party attorneys are researching ways to swap him out on the ballot should he bow out.
But their hands are largely tied: Collins would have to consent to any effort to remove him from the race since the federal primary election is already complete.
Collins represents New York's 27th congressional district spanning all or part of eight counties, including the largely rural areas between Buffalo and Rochester and portions of Erie and Monroe counties.
A three-term incumbent, he ran unopposed for the Republican nomination in his district ahead of the June 26 primary.
He is accused of passing along an insider trading tip to his son, which allowed him and his fiancee's family to unload shares of a company and avoid $768,000 in losses.
Collins is a key congressional ally of President Donald Trump, often acting a surrogate on cable television and becoming the first member of Congress to endorse Trump during the 2016 Republican primary.
The congressman pledged Wednesday to remain in office and continue running for a fourth term in November, when he faces a challenge from Democrat Nate McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor.
In a statement, the National Republican Congressional Committee — which leads the House Republicans' campaign efforts — stopped short of endorsing Collins' decision to continue his campaign.
“These are very serious charges," NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman said. "We will let the facts come to light and trust the judicial system as we continue to assess his reelection campaign.”
At least one county Republican leader within Collins' district said she would prefer he step aside and give party leaders a chance to replace him with someone else.
Ellen Grant, chair of the Wyoming County GOP, said she will give Collins an opportunity to prove he is innocent, though she said the case laid out in a news conference Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman was "very convincing."
But while Grant said she was appreciative of the work Collins had done for Wyoming County, she said she would prefer he drop out of the race.
"Probably at this point I would because I think it's going to be quite a distraction," Grant said.
Even if Collins were to agree to step aside, GOP leaders have few options to replace him.
New York law essentially only allows parties to change their nominee after the primary if the candidate dies, moves out of state or accepts a nomination to another elected office. That can happen up until seven days before the election, according to the state Board of Elections.
So if the GOP were to replace him, Collins would have to change his residency or get nominated to another post.
Ed Cox, the head of the state Republican Party, issued a statement Wednesday saying he was "disappointed with the news."
"No one is above the law, but Chris deserves his day in court and we will wait to see what unfolds,” said Cox, who declined further comment Thursday.
Richard Andres Jr., the Niagara County GOP chairman, said he spoke to his town leaders and they have not expressed interest in seeking another candidate.
Andres said he will leave it up to Collins to decide.
"Whether it’s him or somebody else, retaining the seat is the No. 1 priority," Andres said. "I hope he acts in the best interest of the district. That would be my advice to him."
Support from allies
Collins did pick up support from Mike Long, the longtime head of the state Conservative Party, a small-but-influential third party that has endorsed Collins and often offers key support for Republican candidates.
Long said he still believes Collins could win re-election in the district, which has a Republican enrollment edge and a history of backing conservative candidates.
"He’s one of the finest gentleman that I’ve had the pleasure of working with," Long said. "That’s a decision he has to make, but he was indicted. It doesn’t mean he was guilty.
Trump, meanwhile, has not yet publicly weighed in on Collins' arrest.
Public support from Trump could go a long way for Collins in his home district, which backed the president by a 24-point margin in the 2016 race, making it his best congressional district in New York.
Alternatively, pressure from the White House to leave the race could hasten Collins' demise.
Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer who was honorary co-chair of Trump's New York campaign in 2016, said he has no knowledge of Trump's feelings on Collins' future prospects.
Paladino said he personally believes Collins should continue to run.
"Until he's been convicted by a jury of his peers, I don't think you go and torture a man and take away his livelihood or ambitions to do the right thing for people," Paladino said. "If he wants to keep that seat and let them prove their case, I defer to him to make that judgment — and he has every right to."
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau Chief Joseph Spector.