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Special election in bellwether N.Y. district may offer midterm clues

The House race tests the power of Republican attempts to cast a referendum on Biden and inflation against Democrats' push to use the issue of abortion to galvanize voters.
Candidates for the New York 19th Congressional district special election, from left, Republican Marcus Molinaro and Democrat Patrick Ryan
Republican Marcus Molinaro and Democrat Pat Ryan, candidates in the New York 19th Congressional District special election, at a forum in Roscoe last week. Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

KINGSTON, N.Y. — A hotly contested House special election Tuesday could provide tantalizing hints about which party has the edge heading into the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

Republican Marc Molinaro is seeking to make the race a referendum on inflation, crime and “one-party rule” in Washington. Democrat Pat Ryan’s campaign, meanwhile, is a test case of the potency of abortion rights and safeguarding American democracy as decisive issues.

Democrats are trying to hold the seat vacated by Antonio Delgado, who stepped aside to become New York’s lieutenant governor. The district has tracked the national mood in recent elections: President Joe Biden won it by about 2 points in 2020 after Donald Trump and Barack Obama carried it in their winning campaigns. Republicans held the district from its creation in the 2012 cycle until the 2018 blue wave, when Delgado won it for Democrats.

The winner will serve in Congress for only a few months before the fall midterm elections scramble the map — and the ballot — for the seat in the next two years. Still, the national significance of the race has invited attention.

The chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents a nearby district, is downplaying expectations for his party, saying the 19th Congressional District is a "very conservative part of New York."

“If the Republicans lose this special election, it will be an earthquake,” Maloney said in an interview Monday. “And further evidence that, like Kansas, New York voters are holding them accountable for taking away reproductive freedom.”

He said the contest “should have been easy” for Republicans given their spending on the race, adding: “I’m very proud of our candidate, Pat Ryan. He’s a war hero, West Point grad, small-business owner; he’s doing a great job. And I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people tomorrow.”

While it’s unclear exactly how much Republicans have spent, Democrats say they’re being outspent. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports GOP House candidates, spent $650,000 on ads in the closing stretch, a source familiar with the buy said.

A recent Democratic campaign committee poll provided to NBC News found Ryan trailing Molinaro by 3 points, within the reported margin of sampling error. Democratic leaders have been wary of projecting confidence in the closing stretch, instead pitching themselves as underdogs. They've also expressed concerns about voter confusion due to Ryan’s running in a different district in the fall midterm election, unlike Molinaro, who will compete in the redrawn 19th district.

But Republicans are also downplaying expectations, worried about voter turnout on their side. A GOP strategist involved in the race called it “a coin toss,” saying, “It’s been hard to peg turnout.”

Still, the race could answer a key question: Which party has the edge in driving voters to the polls? Will Biden’s unpopularity and the pain of inflation propel Republicans and dampen Democratic enthusiasm? Or will the Supreme Court’s ruling to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion be the mobilizing issue Democrats are betting on to hold back a red wave?

Although the congressional map will change in the Nov. 8 election, this is the type of red-to-blue district that created Democrats' current House majority, and it isn’t expendable if the party wants to hold on to power. It includes liberal enclaves like Kingston and Woodstock, along with rural conservative areas.

Ryan’s campaign has zeroed in on abortion messaging in the first competitive congressional race since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. His campaign signs read “choice is on the ballot.” Speaking in New Paltz over the weekend, flanked by women, he asked voters to remember their reaction to the decision and channel that indignation into action. 

“The stakes could not be higher for our community, our country and our democracy. Based on my opponent’s extreme anti-choice record — including opposing the very law that protected abortion rights even if the woman’s life is in danger and in cases of rape and incest — it is absolutely essential that we put choice at the center of our campaign,” Ryan told NBC News. “We won’t go back, and we won’t go down without a fight. Choice is on the ballot, and this race will be a bellwether for November.” 

Ryan, an Iraq War veteran, has positioned abortion access as a “freedom” issue, using rhetoric often used to appeal to conservative or libertarian voters and taking a page out of the Kansas Democrats’ playbook. An anti-abortion constitutional amendment was overwhelmingly defeated in Kansas, adding fuel to the fire for Democrats running on the issue across the country.

Molinaro, on the other hand, has worked to downplay the abortion issue and has not leaned into anti-abortion rhetoric like some of his party colleagues. Instead, he has focused his campaign on the economy, going after Biden and Democratic leadership. In a video posted Monday, Molinaro calls the election a “referendum” on the performance of those in Washington and asks voters to send a message about “Joe Biden’s inflation.”

The Molinaro campaign didn’t respond Monday to a request for further comment.

Democrats are fretting that Molinaro is better known after he ran statewide as the GOP’s nominee for governor in 2018. He’s been involved in local politics since he was 18 years old, and in 1995 he became the youngest mayor in the U.S. But Republicans worry that a lack of competitive primaries in their party may diminish conservative turnout, unlike among Democrats, who face a series of competitive contests across the state Tuesday.

A second Republican operative working on the race said the election coincides with primary day and noted that Democrats in New York turn out in bigger numbers for races within the two major parties, in which independents can’t participate.

“Special elections are special, and this one’s going to be even more so,” the operative said.

Sahil Kapur reported from New York City and Dasha Burns reported from Kingston, N.Y.