New York Democrat Pat Ryan's win in House special election casts doubt on GOP 'red wave'


The Ulster County executive won a tight race in a swing district after putting abortion rights at the center of his campaign.

Democrat Pat Ryan won a House special election in New York's 19th District on Tuesday after focusing his campaign heavily on abortion rights.

Ryan won the race against Republican Marc Molinaro by a 2.2-point margin with 92% of the votes counted, according to the New York Times. President Joe Biden won the district by a slim 1.5-point margin in 2020.

The seat became vacant after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY) to be her lieutenant governor. Republican outside groups significantly outspent their pro-Democratic counterparts on the special election and polling showed Molinaro to be the heavy favorite.

The race was widely viewed as a test of whether abortion rights would be a winning issue for Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms, following the conservative Supreme Court majority's unpopular Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health ruling. That June 5-4 decision overturned the nearly 50-year-old right to choose whether to have an abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

Following the ruling, Ryan, the current Ulster County executive, put his support for abortion rights front and center in the race. His campaign signs reminded voters "CHOICE IS ON THE BALLOT" and his ads noted that he had fought in the military for freedoms including abortion rights.

"How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women's bodies?" he asked in his first spot. "That's not the country I fought for."

Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive and a former state legislator, has an anti-abortion voting record and backed "thoughtful limitations" on abortion, but tried to downplay his views on abortion during the race. As Ryan and Democrats played up the issue, Molinaro tried to change the subject to law enforcement and the economy.

"This is a special election. It is about the voters of the 19th Congressional District. And it is both disingenuous and a bit insulting to tell them what their issues are," Molinaro said shortly before the election.

Earlier this month, voters in Republican-leaning Kansas decisively voted to protect abortion rights in a statewide referendum.

Ryan framed his victory as another referendum on reproductive choice.

"Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won," Ryan tweeted on Tuesday night. "We voted like our democracy was on the line because it is. We upended everything we thought we knew about politics and did it together."

Molinaro's campaign policy page made no mention of his views on abortion or on other major political issues.

But he ran a strong backer of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in his quest to become Speaker of the House in 2023. McCarthy backed him in return, praising him as a "conservative champion."

As he did in 2020, McCarthy (R-CA) has spent the past two years predicting a 2022 "red wave" that will put Republicans in control of the House. He has offered to bet his "personal house" that the GOP will gain a majority and has promised to use his powers to retaliate against his political opponents if it does.

Democratic strategist Jon Reinish told Politico that New York's special election was "really a canary in a coal mine" and argued that it showed "all projections of a red wave are completely overblown."

An unnamed Republican strategist responded to the results by texting the outlet, "Well, shit."

A new Pew Research Center poll on Tuesday found that registered voters now prefer a Democratic House candidate over a Republican House candidate, 44%-42%. The same poll also found that 56% of those voters say abortion rights will be a "very important" consideration in their vote.

While House Democrats appear to have gained some momentum since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, Republicans are still expected to retake control of the chamber in November. The president's party usually loses seats in midterm elections.

There have been three other House special elections since the decision. As was the case in Ryan's victory, the Democratic nominees have outperformed Biden's 2020 benchmark each time — though Republicans held onto each of those red districts.

"There are 222 House seats better than NY19 by Biden performance," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tweeted after the race. That would mean that if other districts vote similarly, Democrats have a chance of keeping their majority in November.

In a concession statement, Molinaro blamed high Democratic turnout for his defeat and said, "Every midterm election is a referendum on the party in power."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.