HOWES CAVE, N.Y. — The candidates agree on one thing: Their upstate New York special election is a key midterm bellwether that will demonstrate just how energized the electorate is about the nation's single most critical issue.
They just don’t agree on what that issue is.
Republican Marc Molinaro, the executive in Dutchess County, is focused on the economy and taming inflation. And Democrat Pat Ryan, the executive in Ulster County, says he'll preserve abortion rights.
The victor in New York's 19th Congressional District will win just four months in office, filling the seat Democrat Antonio Delgado vacated when he became New York's lieutenant governor.
But the Aug. 23 contest — the first battleground House election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — could prove far more consequential, giving the clearest indication yet of whether abortion will be the issue that decides control of Congress.
Ryan, whose campaign has also focused on other recent Supreme Court rulings related to climate change and New York’s overturned concealed carry law, debuted his first campaign ad an hour after the court handed down its abortion decision in June.
“We’ll look back on that week — or those really 48 hours of those decisions — as a real moment where the county woke back up in terms of what’s at stake, where we could go if we don’t intervene and change the trajectory,” he said in an interview at his campaign office in Kingston.
Molinaro has previously supported taking New York’s law on abortion out of the criminal code, but he opposed 2019 legislation to codify abortion protections.
On Wednesday, Ryan challenged Molinaro to a debate solely focused on the issue.
“This public debate on abortion rights would give Molinaro a chance to break his silence and correct the record on his stance—or make the case to voters why the federal government should restrict women’s basic human rights,” he said in a release.
Molinaro has focused on the economy as he makes his case to the electorate.
“There is little question that voters across upstate New York are focused on the rising cost of living and crime,” he said in an interview after he met with law enforcement in the hamlet of Howes Cave, a regular tourist spot known for its vast caverns. “People live in the now, and right now they can’t afford to make ends meet — they’re running up credit card bills to cover rising expenses, they’re worried about home heating fuel prices.”
"They’re making desperate choices, and frankly, that’s what voters are concerned about.”
In many ways, it's the most competitive high-profile race in the country — in the months when candidates are usually fine-tuning their messages ahead of November.
And it comes under unusual circumstances: Molinaro and Ryan are competing to finish off the final few months of Delgado’s term in a seat that stretches from suburban Poughkeepsie to Cooperstown. Then they will be on the November ballot for separate seats due to new district lines.
The race pits two rising stars who live on opposite sides of the Hudson River against each other.
Molinaro became the youngest mayor in the country when he won an election in the Poughkeepsie suburb of Tivoli at the age of 19 in 1995, but lost a quixotic gubernatorial campaign against Andrew Cuomo in 2018. Still, he's outpolled other Republicans in his swing county and has long been viewed as Republicans’ best chance at retaking the congressional seat Delgado won in 2018.
Ryan, a graduate of nearby West Point, finished second in the seven-way primary Delgado won that year. When Ryan ran for county executive in 2019, he received 78 percent of the vote for an office where the last Democratic contender got just 57 percent. He was open to a run for statewide office as Cuomo’s demise began last year.
Regardless of how August shakes out, the two are going right back on the campaign trail for November contests in two newly drawn districts that contain pieces of the seat they are currently vying for. Both of those newly drawn seats are potentially competitive, and one candidate will run with the advantages of incumbency while the other enters with the brand of a recent loser.
But more immediately, the August contest will offer a preview of just how well the parties’ current messages might resonate in the fall. Both have plenty of topics that come up in their public appearances, but the heart of their campaigns rests in the issues that are at the center of the national debate.
“The challenge economically and financially on upstate farmers, families, and small businesses is going to become even more challenging,” Molinaro said at an event outside a Schoharie Mobil gas station last week. “American inflation is tacking 2 to 4 percentage points ahead of European nations. Why? Because of reckless spending and dangerous policies coming out of Washington."
He urged his listeners to encourage their acquaintances to vote in August, even if they initially “decide that gas is a little too expensive to get in the car and drive to the polling place.”
There’s no better seat in New York to determine how these warring messages might resonate. Ever since a little-known lawyer named Kirsten Gillibrand stunned Republican Rep. John Sweeney in a predecessor district in 2006, it has been among the state’s most hotly contested.
The right and left have traded control since. Republican Chris Gibson took the seat by 5.6 percentage points in 2012, fellow Republican John Faso took it by 8.2 points in 2016. Then Delgado won by 5.2 points and 11.6 points in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Joe Biden won the district with less than 51 percent of the vote two years ago.
Even if the abortion message resonates, few people expect the national climate to be as good for Democrats as it was in the years when Delgado won the seat with some breathing room. There’s plenty of evidence that Democratic voters are nowhere near as enthused as they were when Donald Trump was in the White House.
But there’s one critical factor on Ryan’s side that has been lost in some of the national prognostications on the race: Democratic enthusiasm has cooled less in recent years in this district than anywhere else in New York.
Consider the local elections in November 2021. Those were among the worst on record for Democrats in places like Long Island. But the party performed extremely well in the mid-Hudson Valley, growing their majority in the Ulster County Legislature to its largest ever. Democrats won the sheriff’s office in nearby Columbia County for the first time in most observers’ memories.
In June, more Democrats voted in the Assembly primary for a seat centered on Kingston than in any other district in the state. And while Democratic turnout in last month’s gubernatorial primary dropped across the board compared to 2018, six of the 10 counties with the smallest dip are in the congressional district.
In the communities “really focused on driving change and progress” in recent years, Ryan said, “that flame is burning strong. … And the Supreme Court decisions are fuel on that flame.”
Much of that continued progressive energy can be attributed to a unique trend in the district.
Woodstock, Hudson and Kingston have grown in recent decades as popular destinations for Brooklyn and Manhattan residents looking to move away from crowded New York City. There was an effort before Delgado’s 2018 victory to encourage residents of deep-blue districts to register to vote at their second homes in the purple seat.
That shift went into hyperdrive two years later when the Covid-19 pandemic turned living in a crowded city into a health risk. Tens of thousands of New York City residents have moved to the region since March 2020. By and large, they're Democrats.
That might not be enough to completely reshape the district's political landscape. But it could certainly offset dispassionate Democrats who are trending away from the ballot box there.
The baseline in the district could fall somewhere between Faso’s 8.2-point win in 2016 and Delgado’s average margin of victory of 8.4 points — making the race about as much of a toss-up as there can be.
Ryan shared an internal poll showing that Molinaro is ahead by 3 points. When voters are told that Molinaro has “opposed guaranteeing abortion rights,” Ryan said he’s up by 12 points.
Those are believable numbers. But they don’t account for where voters will land if they’re made familiar with Molinaro’s position on abortion as well as an incessant message that Democrats like Ryan aren’t doing enough to tackle inflation.
“There are enough Democrats agreeing with Democrats in state and federal government right now to have a pragmatic Republican who has lived the life of upstate New York,” Molinaro said.
“I’ve known Pat, we’re friends — well we were until at least a few months ago, I hope we are afterward,” Molinaro said. “And I think right now more than ever, we just need somebody who is really going to hold Washington and Albany accountable. And Pat’s not able to do that, he’s not. He will be another vote for the Democratic majority in the House.”