Next Tuesday, voters in New York’s Hudson Valley will determine who will fill a vacant seat in Congress for the next four months. But a potentially short stint in Washington isn’t the only thing at stake: The race could serve as a bellwether for how Democrats will fare in a tough election season as they hope for a boost from anger over abortion rights.
“My race is the first competitive congressional election in a post-Roe world, and is a national referendum on whether women have the right to control their own bodies,” Democratic candidate Pat Ryan, currently the Ulster County Executive, told HuffPost in a statement.
Ryan is running against Republican and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro for the 19th Congressional District seat. It has been vacant since May, when New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) appointed then-Rep. Antonio Delgado (D) as her lieutenant governor after his predecessor was indicted.
If he wins, Ryan wouldn’t be in the seat for long. New York recently redrew its districts, and he is due to run in the new 18th District, where he is a heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination.
For Molinaro, the stakes are arguably higher. Although his current home in Red Hook is not in the newly redrawn 19th District, he is running again there in November regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. A win now would give him the chance to run as an incumbent.
Ryan is behind in the polls. But in just three months, he exceeded Molinaro’s fundraising haul over a much longer period. He has made protecting abortion rights the focus of virtually all of his advertising. His campaign began shortly before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June.
“He fought for our families, our freedom,” the narrator says in Ryan’s first TV spot. Ryan then turns to the camera and says, “And freedom includes a woman’s right to choose.”
Meanwhile, national Republicans, eager to deprive Democrats of such a symbolic victory, are spending heavily to turn the race into a referendum on President Joe Biden, inflation and progressive criminal justice reform policies in New York state.
“That one should be a race that the Republicans win, but I know they’re spending millions of dollars and they’re struggling.”
– Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $1.2 million attacking Ryan and boosting Molinaro, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC, has spent about $650,000 doing the same.
“Democrat representation has given Hudson Valley voters record-high inflation, soaring violent crime and middle-class tax hikes,” NRCC spokesperson Samantha Bullock said in a statement. “The stakes are far too high to send extreme liberal Pat Ryan to D.C.”
National Democrats are investing smaller sums in the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said it is funding a “six-figure” TV and digital ad buy on Ryan’s behalf. And VoteVets, a Democratic veterans group, has spent over $500,000 boosting Ryan, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the DCCC, pointed to the gap in funding as evidence that Republicans are afraid of losing the seat and providing Democrats another pre-midterm win.
Maloney cited Kansans’ vote earlier this month against enabling the state government to restrict abortion rights, as well as a narrower-than-expected GOP margin of victory in a special House election in Southern Minnesota, as evidence of an abortion-related tide shifting toward Democrats ahead of the fall.
The special election in New York’s 19th is “not one we should win. That one should be a race that the Republicans win, but I know they’re spending millions of dollars and they’re struggling,” Maloney told HuffPost on Wednesday. “You might see Pat Ryan surprise some people.”
To wit, the DCCC released a poll on Thursday that showed Ryan trailing Molinaro by just 3 percentage points, putting him within the margin of error. An earlier poll commissioned by a group supporting Molinaro had him leading Ryan by 10 points.
‘Let Molinaro Be Molinaro’
The challenge for both candidates in the race is that their opponents are doing their best to defy politically inconvenient parts of their parties’ national brands.
Molinaro told HuffPost that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case means abortion rights are now a matter left up to the states. He said he would oppose any kind of federal abortion ban. And on a personal level, he said he supports allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest or in which the life of the mother is in danger.
“I fall into the belief of most Americans that there ought to be thoughtful limitations [on abortion],” he said after greeting voters at a block-party sponsored by the fire department in Hunter, New York, earlier this month.
Molinaro would not say what limitations he supports, deferring once again to state governments to decide.
Liz Benjamin, an Albany-based political consultant, said that national Republicans would be wise to continue giving Molinaro latitude to run as a candidate capable of appealing to more moderate voters.
“You’ve got to let Molinaro be Molinaro and to the degree that they’re letting him be perhaps less extreme on abortion than a Texas Republican might be, then that plays in New York,” Benjamin said.
Ryan does have a basis to contrast himself with Molinaro on the issue of abortion rights.
“My race is the first competitive congressional election in a post-Roe world, and is a national referendum on whether women have the right to control their own bodies.”
– Pat Ryan, Democratic congressional candidate
As a candidate for governor in 2018, Molinaro told the Albany Times-Union that abortion is a “settled constitutional right, and therefore I would defend it as governor.”
But he opposed the legislation that Democrats ultimately passed codifying abortion rights in New York, which he said was because it allowed abortions to be performed by licensed practitioners who are not doctors, and because he believed that the bill would permit “late-term abortion.” The law allows abortions up to 24 weeks and afterward only if the fetus is not viable, or the abortion is “necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
During his stint as a member of the state Assembly, Molinaro also earned the ire of Planned Parenthood for voting to ban state Medicaid funds from going to finance abortion.
And the DCCC seized on Molinaro’s deference to state governments as evidence that voters cannot trust him on the issue.
“Marc Molinaro and Washington Republicans haven’t been paying attention if they think voters won’t fight back against their attacks on abortion rights,” said Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesperson for the DCCC. “While Molinaro supports states banning abortion with no exceptions, Pat Ryan knows New Yorkers want a representative who will protect women’s freedom to make their own decisions about their bodies.”
Ryan also argues that Molinaro is waiting to show his true, right-wing colors until after he gets through the election.
“When I talk to a lot of people what they actually say to me is, ‘We’re afraid he’s going to become another [Rep.] Elise Stefanik [R-N.Y.],’” Ryan told HuffPost in Poughkeepsie earlier this month. “She was seen as this hope of people that there could be a moderate Republican from New York and that could rebuild that part of the party and instead she just completely sold out and went far, far right.”
HuffPost asked Molinaro whether he could promise that he would not follow Stefanik’s path. He declined to comment on Stefanik at all and instead asked voters to consult his long record in public office.
“I am a pragmatic person who will work with anyone, Republican or Democrat, who is honest and earnest about solving problems,” he said.
Crime And Inflation
Just as Molinaro is not the diehard abortion opponent that Democrats are running against in, say, the Michigan and Pennsylvania gubernatorial races, Ryan is not a supporter of “defunding” the police ― the left-wing slogan that Republicans have tried to hang around the necks of Democrats.
“I have consistently increased [police] funding, but been very specific about it needing to go toward gun and drug-related violent criminal networks that have really gained a major foothold here in the last five years, especially around fentanyl distribution,” Ryan told HuffPost after he spoke to anti-gun violence demonstrators in Poughkeepsie. (Poughkeepsie is in New York’s 18th, but Ryan has been campaigning across New York’s 19th as well in recent weeks.)
The NRCC has nonetheless tried to paint him as a radical.
“Across the country, they called cops racist, advocated looting and violence – and extreme liberal Pat Ryan marched alongside them,” a narrator says in one NRCC ad that features a photo of Ryan participating in a Black Lives Matter march across the Mid-Hudson Bridge after the killing of George Floyd.
The ad omits the fact that Molinaro walked alongside Ryan at that march.
Molinaro downplayed the significance of his presence. “Law enforcement along with church leaders agreed that we needed to be there ― all of us, local leaders ― to try to ensure that there was not violent action,” he said.
Asked whether he agreed with the NRCC’s use of the photo, Molinaro said that he has no say over independent spending in the race.
The NRCC ad also alleges that Ryan tried to “deny local police critical equipment,” making the charge as footage of a burning police car appears on screen.
Ryan said he does not oppose granting police “critical equipment” like patrol cars, but he has been on record opposing federal programs granting local police departments surplus military equipment, such as grenade launchers and armored vehicles. He told HuffPost that as a veteran, he considers the practice “outrageous.”
Molinaro and his allies have also attacked Ryan for supporting the New York bail reform law that they blame for driving the recent uptick in violent crime.
“I believe that in ensuring social justice, we must also ensure public safety,” Molinaro said. “Pat’s position is that he embraces cashless bail … [and] some of the policies out of Albany that are truly undermining public safety.”
In 2019, New York Democrats passed a law severely restricting when judges can set cash bail on the grounds that it discriminates against low-income defendants awaiting trial. The legislature has twice returned to roll back some of the original law’s provisions amid complaints that it deprived judges of the discretion needed to keep dangerous people off of the streets.
Ryan backed the 2019 reform but also supports the changes to the original bail law, making it easier to set cash bail, according to campaign spokesperson Alyssa Cass.
“Pat has been a leader in keeping his community safe,” she said. “He’s led on the issue, partnering with local law enforcement to increase their funding, ramped up efforts to take guns off our streets, and has supported reforms to cash bail to support and protect our communities.”
“The house was on fire, we asked for some water. The federal government sent us three fire trucks, four ambulances, two helicopters, and a hospital.”
– Marc Molinaro, Republican congressional candidate
Molinaro is likely on his sturdiest political ground when railing against inflation. He blames Biden and congressional Democrats for spending more money than the economy could absorb.
Asked whether he would have voted for Biden’s COVID-19 economic relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, Molinaro replied, “I would have negotiated something that wasn’t so massive.”
“The house was on fire, we asked for some water,” he added. “The federal government sent us three fire trucks, four ambulances, two helicopters, and a hospital.”
Molinaro would not say whether he would have voted for the final bill if he had not succeeded in negotiating a smaller package.
In other ways, the two candidates have taken similar approaches to giving local consumers relief from inflation. Both Molinaro and Ryan have reduced their counties’ taxes on gasoline.
Earlier this month, Molinaro faulted Ryan for not using his budget surplus to provide property tax relief. But Ryan, who blames “corporate greed” for inflation and supports making corporations pay their “fair” share of taxes, has since announced a 3% property tax cut.
Molinaro has been accused of misusing the federal funds that Dutchess County received from Biden’s economic relief bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cited Molinaro’s plans to use over $12 million to renovate a county-owned minor-league baseball stadium as an example of how the money was being wasted. Amid criticism, Molinaro shelved the plan in April and redeployed the money for housing, claiming that construction costs due to inflation had made the project inefficient.
Molinaro rejects the notion that the idea itself was irresponsible, arguing that it was designed to avoid having to issue bonds to renovate a facility that generates revenue for the county.
“Dutchess County has the highest bond rating of any county in the state of New York,” he said. “That is a reflection of our fiscal responsibility.”