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Democrat's win in bellwether N.Y. House district showcases power of abortion rights message

Pat Ryan galvanized Democratic voters in an otherwise difficult year for the party controlling Washington, a victory that raises questions for GOP predictions of a "red wave."
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A victory in a bellwether House district in New York's Hudson Valley gives fresh hope to Democrats ahead of a daunting 2022 midterm election and raises questions for Republicans who have been expecting a "red wave" this fall.

Democrat Pat Ryan won the hotly contested special election on Tuesday, defeating Republican Marc Molinaro, NBC News projected.

The outcome reveals the power of Democratic messaging on abortion: Ryan had put the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade front and center to try to galvanize his party's voters to get to the polls, drawing on his military service to argue that fighting for American freedom means protecting reproductive rights.

It was pitted against the Republican message, carried by Molinaro, that the election is a referendum on President Joe Biden, economic pain through inflation, and crime. Molinaro ran as a check on "one-party rule" by Democrats in Washington, which Republicans have long seen as a winning pitch. On Tuesday morning, he urged voters to show up and "send a message to Washington."

It wasn't enough.

The district in Hudson Valley has tracked the national mood for years — it voted for Biden by about 2 points in 2020 after voting for Donald Trump and Barack Obama in their successful presidential campaigns. It was a Republican-held House district until it flipped to Democrats in the 2018 election.

In 2010 or 2014 — the last two midterm elections when a Democrat held the White House — Democratic candidates would likely have had no chance in this district. Ryan overcame the headwinds and won.

"Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won," Ryan said Tuesday night, declaring victory.

The Molinaro campaign didn't immediately respond to the result Tuesday night or respond to messages seeking comment. Ryan will serve out the last few months of the seat vacated by Democrat Antonio Delgado, who became New York’s lieutenant governor, before running for a full term in a neighboring district Nov. 8.

Ahead of Election Day, strategists in both parties had downplayed their chances of winning. Democrats fretted about Republican spending down the stretch and the tendency of many liberal voters to sit out elections when their party runs the White House. GOP operatives noted that the special election coincided with a primary day in a blue state in which Democrats typically turn out in bigger numbers as a result of having more competitive intraparty contests.

If Ryan's performance Tuesday is replicated by Democratic candidates this fall, it means control of Congress is still up for grabs. Republicans only need a handful of seats to flip the House majority, and a net gain of one seat to capture the Senate.

In a statement congratulating Ryan, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney said his victory "sends a clear message that voters are fighting back against Republicans’ extreme attacks on abortion rights."

"I’m excited to welcome Pat into Congress where I know he’ll continue to be a champion for the Hudson Valley," he said in a statement. "Republicans can say goodbye to their ‘Red Wave’ because voters are clearly coming out in force to elect a pro-choice majority to Congress this November."