Democrat Pat Ryan defeats Republican Marc Molinaro in bellwether House race

Democrat Pat Ryan has won a special election for New York’s 19th Congressional District in a race that garnered national attention ahead of November’s midterm contests.

The election was seen as a bellwether of the national mood because Ryan had focused on abortion rights, while his opponent, Republican Marc Molinaro, had tried to run on issues embraced by the GOP nationwide, such as crime and inflation. Ryan’s victory will likely buoy Democrats' hopes that they can retain control of Congress in November despite historical trends, high inflation and President Biden’s low approval rating.

Ryan, the executive of Ulster County, surged late in the race for the district, which stretches up the Hudson Valley north of New York City. Molinaro, the executive of Dutchess County, had been the GOP’s nominee for governor in 2018.

Pat Ryan.
Democrat Pat Ryan speaks during a campaign rally in Kingston, N.Y., on Monday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Ryan’s campaign revolved almost entirely around abortion rights. Within an hour of the Supreme Court's announcement of its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Ryan had released his first ad, highlighting his time in the military before turning to abortion.

“Freedom includes a woman's right to choose,” Ryan asked. “How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women's bodies?" And his yard signs were emblazoned with a simple slogan: "Choice is on the ballot.”

Molinaro’s position on abortion rights was moderate by Republican standards; he said he opposed a federal ban and supported exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother.

But Democrats said Molinaro’s deference to the states and refusal to say whether he’d vote to codify abortion rights at the federal level meant he couldn’t be trusted, citing his opposition to allowing Medicaid funds to be used for the procedure while serving in the state Assembly. They also criticized Molinaro for his appearances with Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican who’s become one of the staunchest supporters of former President Donald Trump in the House.

Republicans attempted to make the race a referendum on Biden while portraying Ryan as a progressive on criminal justice issues. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $1 million on an ad that included the narrator saying of Ryan: “Hurting cops. Helping criminals.”

Marc Molinaro.
Republican candidate Marc Molinaro on Aug. 18. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The seat became vacant when Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, who had won the district in 2018, left to become the state’s lieutenant governor.

New York’s 19th is an increasingly rare example of a true swing district. Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried it twice in 2008 and 2012. It then voted for Donald Trump before going for Biden in 2020.

Democrats hope abortion rights will galvanize their voters in other contested districts this November. Ryan’s victory comes after the sound defeat of an anti-abortion ballot initiative earlier this month in Kansas, along with closer-than-expected races in Nebraska and Minnesota that seemed indicative of Democratic strength.

Regardless of Ryan’s victory, however, a recent redrawing of New York’s congressional districts means he is assured of a congressional seat for only a few months. In November he will be running in the new, Democratic-leaning 18th District, where his home is located, while Molinaro is expected to compete for the new 19th District seat, leaving open the possibility that both men will find themselves serving in the House next year.