NEW YORK — In New York’s competitive contest for the House of Representatives, only one Democrat managed to break through the Republican wave that washed over the state this election cycle.
That Democrat was Rep. Pat Ryan, an Army combat veteran who squeaked out a victory against Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmitt.
Now, as Democrats conduct a torturous post-mortem of their poor showing in New York state — a showing made even more painful when compared to the expectation-defying results they had in much of the rest of the country — political observers are turning to the 18th Congressional District to understand why Ryan won while other Democrats weren’t so fortunate.
Ryan, the former Ulster County executive, had a few things going for him.
Although the redistricting process confounded many Democrats, he may have benefited from it. In August, he won a special election to replace former Rep. Antonio Delgado, who vacated the seat to take a job as lieutenant governor. That was in the 19th Congressional District.
Redistricting, which comes every 10 years after each national census, put parts of what was the 19th District, like the city of Kingston, into the 18th — and that was where Ryan ultimately decided to run.
For Ryan, this meant two congressional runs in quick succession, which kept his name front and center for people casting ballots who were already familiar with him.
“Voters knew him. They voted for him before, and they liked him,” said longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
Like every Democrat in New York state, Ryan had to counter a Republican-driven narrative that Democratic control had led to upticks in crime — even though Republican-led areas have also witnessed similar spikes in crime. Despite that, many Democrats in New York were still caught off guard.
Ryan was not. His status as a graduate of West Point and an Army veteran lent him credibility when it came to public safety — as did his record as Ulster county executive.
“Many people think that veterans and law enforcement are all in the same party, and it’s just not true,” said Juan Figueroa, the Ulster Country sheriff, who had to make his case to Ryan for police funding when Ryan served as county executive.
Also untrue, said Figueroa, is some Republicans’ argument that Democrats want, by and large, the defunding of police departments. As county executive, Ryan hired more cops, expanded benefits for law enforcement retirees and helped secure a grant to combat opioid abuse. Earlier this year, the sheriff’s department also landed the biggest drug and gun takedown in the county’s history.
“This is because I partnered up with Pat,” Figueroa, a retired Marine and former state trooper, said. “My budget went up 18%.”
Ryan himself acknowledged that actively articulating a counterpoint to the Republican narrative on crime was one reason he managed to eke out a win.
“We leaned in and talked about what I’ve actually done — from wearing the uniform in combat for 27 months to increasing funding for our police and actually bringing down violent crime,” he said Thursday during an appearance in MSNBC. “You can’t leave a vacuum and a space for what the far right is doing, which is lying.”
One knock against some Democrats — and Gov. Kathy Hochul in particular — is that they were ill-prepared for the debate on crime this election cycle — even though New York City Mayor Eric Adams won City Hall based on the issue just one year before. Many political insiders have also groused that Hochul’s campaign especially wasn’t prepared in general — from distributing campaign literature to employing people with enough knowledge of the state’s political landscape.
Malia Du Mont, who met Ryan when the two campaigned together on Delgado’s general election congressional run, said that wasn’t the case with Ryan’s campaign — especially when it came to confusion around redistricting.
“They really tried to educate voters,” Du Mont said. “His campaign was really smart.”