There’s nobody quite like Nate McMurray in Congress–at least, not yet. His earnest disposition, upbeat, energized persona, and diverse background make him a truly idiosyncratic political figure, even based on the high standards set by the colorful personalities that dominate Capitol Hill. Indeed, McMurray, the 43-year-old town supervisor of an island just downstream from Niagara Falls, is in no way a “creature of the swamp.”
In fact, McMurray is probably more of an outsider than Donald Trump. He’s a Mormon from upstate New York, born to working class parents, and holds a degree from Tsinghua University in Beijing. He also worked for years as a lawyer in South Korea.
Just as McMurray is a once-in-cycle candidate, so too is his race. Nobody expected this race to be competitive, least of all McMurray. “Most people told me ‘don’t bother, it’s an unwinnable race,’” McMurray said of his congressional bid, “but I just felt it was the right thing to do.”
The 27th district of New York, which covers the rural counties outside Buffalo and Rochester, is the most Republican-leaning district in the state, having voted for Trump by 25 points. Republican incumbent Chris Collins–a rock-ribbed conservative and one of Trump’s earliest backers in Congress–won reelection to a third term by a whopping 35 points that same year, and was widely expected to coast this time around as well. But then, a miracle.
In August, Collins was arrested and indicted on charges of insider trading. Following that development, he suspended his campaign, only to return to the campaign trail after it was determined that fielding a suitable replacement for him would be too difficult. Though he has pled not guilty and panned the charges as “meritless,” he’s nonetheless taken a substantial hit in his district.
What was once a safe Republican district has now morphed into a dead heat, with a New York Times/Siena poll earlier this week showing Collins just barely edging out McMurray, 44 to 40. An internal poll from the McMurray campaign this week shows McMurray up 4, which is up from an internal poll two weeks earlier showing him tied. So, not only is the race tight, momentum is on McMurray’s side.
“We just have to get out the vote,” McMurray says, when asked what his plan was to close the gap on election day, “Remember this is a race nobody thought we had a chance in. They didn’t see us coming. We have developed a ground game and an army of supporters across this region through old school, door-to-door, grassroots politics.” McMurray says he’s a “a strong believer in people shaking hands and talking” and cites that strategy as the reason he has “a team of people who believe in me.”
McMurray is indeed running a strong ground game, and has picked up support from high-profile figures like Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and former Vice President Joe Biden, who campaigned with McMurray earlier this month. Collins, on the other hand, has been reclusive and mostly unseen on the campaign trail. He has refused to participate in a debate, leaving McMurray to debate reform party candidate Larry Piezga. He put out one ad—which was widely panned by the media as racist—accusing McMurray of helping to move American jobs to China and Korea. McMurray says those claims are a fabrication.
McMurray points to numerous accomplishments as Supervisor of Grand Island, a town of about 20,000 people, which he points is “an island the size of Manhattan.” That list includes the development of a welcome center, which he says is “a celebration of the history of our region from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mark Twain,” as well as the creation of an 8-mile-long waterfront park, the preservation of hundreds of acres of land, significant investment in solar energy and urban renewal project, and, his crowning achievement, the installation of cashless toll booths. McMurry proudly proclaims that Grand Island was “the first place to do that in all of upstate New York.”
McMurray cites as his inspirations legends the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and, surprisingly, Ronald Reagan. “Any kid like me who grew up in the `80s was inspired by Ronald Reagan—at least his sense of dignity if not his specific policy points,” McMurray explains.
Aiming to be an advocate for the working class, low-income, and downtrodden residents of his district, McMurray cites farming as one of his primary economic concerns for his heavily rural district. “It’s kind of an afterthought in society,” he says of the agricultural trade, “but it’s our biggest industry. So we have to do everything we can to support farming and smart trade for farmers.” He argues that the Trump administration’s trade tariffs do not serve that goal, but rather impede farmers’ economic prospects. Instead, he says he wants to “find ways to get visa programs for workers,” to combat labor shortages on farms.
He also points to infrastructure as both a grave dilemma and a potential driver of economic growth: “We used to lead the America in infrastructure, from the Erie Canal on down, and now we’re trying to patch the infrastructure of the last century while the rest of the world is building the infrastructure of the next century, and that’s wrong.” He believes that expanding rural broadband would also help to curb the outflux of residents in upstate New York. “People would love to live here and stay here,” he claims, “but they can’t stay here when they have no internet, roads and bridges in disrepair, and farms that are failing.”
On more divisive political issues, McMurray’s ideological stances fall into what he describes as “a la carte politics,” stating that “if something seems like a good idea, I’ll go with that.” On issues such as healthcare, he is firmly left-of-center, backing a medicare-for-all system, a proposal which has been championed by progressives and Democratic socialists like Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.
On gun control—a particularly weighty issue in his gun-loving district—McMurray says that while he has “zero problem with people having guns in their homes, and engaging in outdoor sports or self defense,” he “agree[s] with the 75% of Americans who want to have background checks and ban bump stocks, which I think are common-sense proposals we can get done.” But, he says, “before I make any votes [on gun control], I’ll listen to the people here.”
The rest of his platform contains numerous other progressive positions: free college tuition, supporting unions—he touts the fact that he is endorsed by “almost every single major union” in the district—investing in green energy, legalizing marijuana, stopping “wasteful wars,” a human rights-centric approach to immigration, and pro-choice abortion policies. Other stances, such as “agriculture as a [national] security issue,” and “smart trade,” are more nonpartisan, while his support for Congressional term limits is a position that has been espoused by reform-minded candidates in both parties.
It is surprising for someone running in such a red district to espouse so many progressive positions. And yet, McMurray has put out an ad featuring long time Republicans who say they will vote for him–in some cases, McMurray will be their first ever Democratic vote. Ask what motivates these voters to cross the ideological divide and back him, McMurray says, “I am a working class kid, a product of this region. At my core, I share the values of the people in this region. So conservative people who have worked their whole life and know the value of a dollar are gonna get behind a guy like me.”
He also believes that he can transcend partisan identity and appeal to conservatives with his pragmatic persona: “Rather than a Democrat or a Republican I’m a practical person, and I think practicality at its core is a very conservative message. [Voters] want solutions. The Republicans [supporting me] are solutions oriented.”
But most important to McMurray’s electoral success is his claim of being an independent leader who will let his conscience guide him. “I will vote for what I think is right,” McMurray exclaims, “often times Democratic policies are wrong, especially their attitude and the way they market their message.” He says he would strive to be an “independent voice in Congress.”
One example of McMurray’s independent streak is his lack of support for the continued reign of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He believes that Democrats “need new leadership across the board,” and says that while he has “nothing against [Pelosi] personally,” he can’t help but notice that “every day on the ground, Mrs. Pelosi’s name, right or wrong, is not helping our party.” He argues that Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are “names that don’t draw voters to the ballot box anymore,” concluding “every politician has a shelf life.”
Instead, he says, ideal House leadership “looks working class, it looks like America.” He elaborates, “There was a time in America when guys like my dad wore union jackets with pride and said boldly ‘I’m a Democrat,’ but you can’t find many guys like that any more. We lost that part of the party, and that’s why we’re struggling. The party forgot its base. It lost its base.”
“When I first started in politics, they said ‘you don’t go onto a corner and just talk to people, it doesn’t work like that, you don’t go on a soapbox,’” McMurray explains. But he has done just that: preaching a positive message of good governance, smart policymaking and political morality to voters with whom he is diametrically opposed on policy. And—conventional wisdom be damned—it’s working.
Support The River! We are a brand new ad-free community newsroom: Help us get the word out by sharing. And consider becoming a paid reader-supporter. Pledge any amount that works for you—it’s the best way to show us you like what we’re doing!