It was the New York election that upended political forecasts: Pat Ryan’s victory over Marc Molinaro in a congressional race in which Molinaro was seen as the likely winner in a climate favoring Republican candidates.
A storm of media coverage about “New York 19” followed, all focused on whether a Democratic win in that Hudson Valley special election meant Republicans might gain fewer House seats than expected in midterm elections in November, and if it signaled more broadly a shift in the political winds.
And for many analysts and Democrats, the upset had a lot to do with the Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended national abortion rights after 49 years. The 19th District race offered the latest evidence that the Dobbs ruling had sparked a voter backlash that that could boost Democratic candidates this fall, shrinking a Republican wave before it crested. Ryan’s win was the bellwether that lifted Democrats’ hopes.
Republicans dash cold water on that new optimism, arguing Democrats have overstated the significance of that race and the role that the Dobbs decision played then and will continue to play in this fall’s elections.
Ryan, the Ulster County executive since 2019, had made abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign, knitting that issue together with what he argued were other freedoms that were under attack by Republicans. In an interview with the USA Today Network, he said he believed that message was a “major, major factor, if not the most important factor,” in his victory, one that struck an emotional core with voters.
“The Dobbs decision had a ripple effect that I think people didn’t expect,” he said.
He recalled having an “immediate, instinctive” impulse to seize that issue at the start of his campaign. “I said, ‘We have to make a stand here, not just for reproductive freedom but for a broader set of freedoms.”
But he did not see it as a one-issue race. He suggested his campaigning for economic relief also helped him prevail, pointing to his ads criticizing Central Hudson Electric & Gas for rate hikes as an example. Both kinds of appeals to voters − protecting freedoms and relieving economic pressure − were important in the race, he argued.
“We need both,” he said.
GOP: Odd election schedule helped Ryan win
Molinaro’s campaign blames a very different factor for his loss: two primaries held the same day as the special election that it says boosted Democratic voter turnout. Both were Democratic primaries in redrawn congressional districts that overlapped with the old 19th District, which Ryan and Molinaro were competing to represent until the end of the year.
Molinaro’s campaign manager, Will Dawson, suggested Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, had scheduled special elections for New York’s vacant 19th District and 23rd District seats on the same day as state Senate and congressional primaries in order to help Ryan win.
“The redistricting fiasco allowed Pat Ryan and Kathy Hochul to rig the election with 2 democrat primary elections on the same day as the general and then lied about Marc’s position on abortion and we still almost won,” he said in an email, when asked about the role of the abortion issue in the race. “The real losers are the voters who were forced to wade through the confusion, corruption and lies concocted by the democrats.”
Ryan responded by denouncing Dawson’s remark as reckless, saying that “to use that language of ‘rigged’ echoes really dangerous rhetoric trumpeted by our former president. It is beneath the dignity of the office we both were seeking.”
Ryan beat Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, by 2.4 percentage points in a district President Joe Biden won by 1.4 points in 2020. Turnout was low, with just 25% of voters casting ballots. Ryan trounced Molinaro in his home county of Ulster − a big chunk of the electorate − and fared well in Columbia County, eclipsing the edge Molinaro held in more Republican-leaning areas of the 11-county district.
The outcome abruptly shifted expectations.
Will a blue wave materialize in November?
The day after the election, pundits at the Cook Political Report cut the range of House seats they predict Republicans will gain to 10 to 20, down from 20 to 35, and gave Democrats a slim chance of keeping their narrow House majority. They also shifted New York’s 18th District race − where Ryan is now running against Republican Colin Schmitt for a full term in November − from a toss-up to “leans Democratic,” since Ryan now had the benefit of running as an incumbent. (Ryan takes office in Congress to fill the rest of the term for the 19th District seaton Sept. 13.)
Mike Lawler, the Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the 17th District, agrees with the Molinaro campaign that Democratic primaries boosted Democratic turnout in the Ryan-Molinaro race, and that the special election was held that day for that reason. That and increased Democratic enrollment in the 19th District were likely the main factors in Ryan’s victory, more so than voter opposition to the Dobbs decision, he argued.
“Certainly it energized Democrats to come out and vote, but I don’t think that is going to have the impact that they think it is going to have in November,” Lawler said of the abortion ruling. He suggested Democrats were exaggerating its importance “in hopes of discouraging Republicans and independents from coming out to vote.”
Lawler argued that most voters are more concerned about issues like inflation, taxes and crime than with abortion rights, particularly in New York where those rights are protected by a 2019 state law. “Abortion is legal in the state of New York,” he said. “It’s not in danger of being curtailed.”
Democrats counter that Republicans in Washington could enact a national abortion ban that would supercede New York’s law if they win control of Congress and the White House. Ryan noted that as unlikely as that seems, the prospect that the Supreme Court would reject the long precedent of Roe v. Wade seemed implausible not long ago.
Abortion ruling widely unpopular in NY
Recent polls suggest Democrats have good reason to emphasize abortion rights in their races.
A Siena College poll in late July found that 68% of New York voters opposed the Dobbs decision and 25% supported it. Among the respondents who voiced opposition: 60% of independents and even 40% of Republicans. Among women, 74% of any voting affiliation were against overturning Roe v. Wade.
In a separate Siena poll question, 74% of voters said they believed abortion should be always or mostly legal. Half of Republican voters shared that view. So did 70% of upstate respondents and 68% of those in New York City’s suburbs.
Nationwide, 57% of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center in July opposed the Dobbs decision and 62% said abortion should remain legal in all or most cases.
Candidates use abortion to fling mud at opponents
The ruling refueled Democrats’ campaigns with an issue that had been largely dormant in recent elections.
Candidates’ stances on abortion in three competitive House races in the Hudson Valley are split along the usual party lines, with Democrats in support of abortion rights and Republicans opposed. Molinaro, who is now running for a full term in the redrawn 19th District, said in a debate hosted by the Daily Freeman in August that he was pro-life but wouldn’t support a national abortion ban if elected, since the Dobbs decision put abortion decisions in states’ hands. He argued that left little role for Congress on abortion.
Lawler took a similar stance in an interview. He said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother, but would vote against a national abortion ban because “it’s a states’ rights issue.” He also argued that limiting abortions to the first trimester was reasonable and allowing them “up until the moment of birth” was extreme, and out of step with voters.
“It’s Democrats like Sean Maloney who are the extremists on this issue,” he said.
Late-term abortions are extremely rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93% of abortions in the U.S. in 2019 were performed in the first trimester.
“Mike Lawler is desperate to hide his radical anti-choice positions from voters,” Maloney spokeswoman Mia Ehrenberg responded in a statement. “Lawler supported the decision to overturn Roe allowing states to completely ban abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. In Albany, Lawler voted against protections for those seeking safe and legal abortions and voted against protections for doctors who perform abortions.”
Schmitt, Ryan’s opponent in the general election, applauded the Dobbs ruling after it was rendered in June for returning abortion decisions to the states and “their duly elected leaders.” But he lamented that the “radical abortion law” that New York’s elected leaders passed in 2019 will remain in effect.
In a statement to the USA Today Network, Schmitt touted his pro-life voting record and accused Ryan of holding extreme positions on abortion. “Pat Ryan’s radical views are rejected by the vast majority of New Yorkers and, while he makes this campaign about his extreme politics, I will continue focusing on inflation, public safety, and securing our border because these are the issues that matter most to local families,” he said.
Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, fired back: “Republicans like Colin Schmitt are the ones going to the extremes, supporting states’ radical efforts to ban abortion with no exceptions and siding with Washington Republicans who want to ban abortion nationwide, including in New York.”
Chris McKenna covers government and politics for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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