HOWES CAVE, NY — The candidates agree on one thing: Their special election in upstate New York is a key midterm indicator that will show how energized the electorate is on the nation’s most critical issue.
They just don’t agree on what that problem is.
Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, is focused on the economy and controlling inflation. And Ulster County Executive Democrat Pat Ryan says he will preserve abortion rights.
The victor in New York’s 19th Congressional District will win just four months in office, filling the seat vacated by Democrat Antonio Delgado when he became New York’s lieutenant governor.
But the Aug. 23 race, the House’s first battleground election since the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. 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 struck down concealed carry law, debuted its first campaign ad an hour after the court handed down her abortion decision in June.
“We will look back on that week, or those really 48 hours of those decisions, as a real moment where the county woke up in terms of what is at stake, where could we go if we don’t step in and change the trajectory. ”, he said in an interview at his campaign office in Kingston.
Molinaro has previously supported striking New York’s abortion law out of the criminal code, but opposed 2019 legislation to codify abortion protections.
On Wednesday, Ryan challenged Molinaro to a debate focused solely on the issue.
“This public debate on abortion rights would give Molinaro a chance to break her silence and correct the record of her position, or explain to voters why the federal government should restrict women’s basic human rights,” she said. a statement.
Molinaro has focused on the economy as he makes his case to the electorate.
“There is no question that voters in upstate New York are focused on the rising cost of living and crime,” he said in an interview after meeting with law enforcement in the hamlet of Howes Cave, a 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 racking up credit card bills to cover rising expenses, they’re worried about home heating oil prices ”.
“They’re making desperate decisions, and frankly, that’s what voters are worried about.”
In many ways, it’s the most competitive high-profile race in the country, in the months when candidates typically hone their messaging before November.
And it comes under unusual circumstances: Molinaro and Ryan are vying to finish the final months of Delgado’s term in a seat that stretches from suburban Poughkeepsie to Cooperstown. They will then 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.
Molinaro became the nation’s youngest mayor when he won an election in the Poughkeepsie suburb of Tivoli at the age of 19 in 1995, but lost a quixotic gubernatorial campaign to Andrew Cuomo in 2018. Still, he has outscored others. Republicans in his swing county and has long been seen as Republicans’ best shot by retaking the congressional seat that Delgado won in 2018.
Ryan, a graduate from nearby West Point, finished second in the seven-entry primary that 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 running for state office when Cuomo’s disappearance began last year.
Regardless of how August ends, the two will return to the campaign trail for November contests in two newly drawn districts that contain parts of the seat they are currently contesting for. Both newly drawn seats are potentially competitive, with one candidate running with the perks of office while the other enters with the mark of a recent loser.
But more immediately, the August contest will offer a preview of how well current party messages might resonate in the fall. Both have many issues that come up in their public appearances, but the heart of their campaigns rests on the issues that are at the center of the national debate.
“The economic and financial challenge for upstate farmers, families and small businesses is going to get even more challenging,” Molinaro said at an event outside a Schoharie Mobil gas station last week. “US inflation is running 2-4 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 too expensive to get in the car and drive to the polls.”
There is no better seat in New York to determine how these messages might resonate at war. Since a little-known lawyer named kirsten gillibrand upset Republican Rep. John Sweeney in a predecessor district in 2006, has been among the most contested in the state.
The right and left have exchanged control ever since. Republican Chris Gibson held the seat by 5.6 percentage points in 2012, fellow Republican John Faso held it by 8.2 points in 2016. Delgado then won by 5.2 points and 11.6 points in 2018 and 2020 respectively. . Joe Biden carried 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 is plenty of evidence that Democratic voters are not as fired up as they were when Donald Trump was in the White House.
But there is a critical factor on Ryan’s side that has been lost in some of the national forecasts about 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 some of the worst on record for Democrats in places like Long Island. But the party did extremely well in the middle of the Hudson Valley, increasing its majority in the Ulster County Legislature to the largest in its history. Democrats won the sheriff’s office in nearby Columbia County for the first time in most observers’ memory.
In June, more Democrats voted in the Assembly primary for a Kingston-centered seat than any other district in the state. And while Democratic turnout in last month’s gubernatorial primary fell overall compared to 2018, six of the 10 counties with the smallest drop are in the congressional district.
In communities “really focused on driving change and progress” in recent years, Ryan said, “that flame burns bright. … And the decisions of the Supreme Court are fuel for that flame.”
Much of that ongoing progressive energy can be attributed to a trend unique to the district.
Woodstock, Hudson, and Kingston have grown in recent decades as popular destinations for residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan looking to get away from busy New York City. There was an effort before Delgado’s victory in 2018 to encourage residents of dark blue districts to register to vote at their second homes in the purple seat.
That change went into hyperdrive two years later, when the Covid-19 pandemic made living in a crowded city a health risk. Tens of thousands of New York City residents they have moved to the region since March 2020. They are generally Democrats.
That might not be enough to completely reshape the district’s political landscape. But it could certainly make up for the dispassionate Democrats who tend to steer clear of the polls there.
The baseline in the district could fall somewhere between Faso’s 8.2-point victory in 2016 and Delgado’s average margin of victory of 8.4 points, making the race as tough as it gets.
Ryan shared an internal poll showing Molinaro ahead by 3 points. When voters are told that Molinaro has “opposed guaranteeing abortion rights,” Ryan said he has a 12-point lead.
Those are believable numbers. But they fail to take into account where voters will land if they become familiar with Molinaro’s position on abortion, as well as a relentless message that Democrats like Ryan aren’t doing enough to tackle inflation.
“There are enough Democrats who agree with Democrats in state and federal government right now to have a pragmatic Republican who has lived the upstate New York life,” Molinaro said.
“I met Pat, we’re friends, well we were until at least a few months ago, I hope we will be later,” Molinaro said. “And I think right now more than ever, we just need someone who will really hold Washington and Albany accountable. And Pat is not capable of doing that, he is not. It will be another vote for the Democratic majority in the House.”