“A win here would validate that the playing field is changing,” Pat Ryan, the Democratic candidate, said in an interview after a campaign event here with some three dozen supporters. “Democrats are really good at being tough on ourselves and we’ve done a lot of that. And sometimes you have to zoom out.
“It may not be reset, but I’m definitely thinking of fundamentally reshaping the trajectory,” he said.
Republicans are just as dependent on the outcome. Flipping the neighborhood would allay fears that the party peaked three months too early. Despite some evidence of a woke Democratic base, operatives remain confident that few bottom-ballot candidates can top President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, especially in this sprawling district, which unites liberal towns north of New York with farming communities in difficulty a hundred kilometers away.
The matchup in the 19th District, which Biden carried by less than 2 points in 2020, is between Ryan, an Army veteran and Ulster County executive who campaigned aggressively on abortion rights. , and Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive who framed his bid as a referendum on the Biden administration’s economic failures. He rejected any attempt by Democrats to redirect the conversation.
“What you have to learn is this: when politicians and candidates try to dictate to voters what they think their issues should be, those candidates should lose,” Molinaro said.
The candidates’ differing goals were highlighted in the final week of the race.
Campaigning in the legendary liberal enclave of Woodstock, Ryan described recent events which he said had helped give momentum to his party and his campaign. Among them: “seismic Supreme Court rulings” that sided with conservatives on abortion, gun rights and environmental protections; and the rejection of an electoral referendum to remove abortion rights in red-leaning Kansas.
“We’ll send another message as the national spotlight begins to turn to us,” Ryan said. “Think of the message sent to Kansas, think of the message we can send right here.”
A day earlier and about 100 miles north, Molinaro heard a very different band of electorate. The former GOP gubernatorial candidate joined Rep. Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.) and other local Republican officials during a visit to the Shults family farm in the small town of Canajoharie to discuss the economic turmoil suffocating their business. Among the issues of concern are rising rents at the farmers’ market, the pain of inflation, the volatility of wholesale milk prices and government hassles hampering their sales.
Later, after a rally in a nearby town, Molinaro took thinly veiled jabs at Ryan and his allies for emphasizing abortion rights in their messages.
“This is a special election. This is about the voters of the 19th congressional district. And it’s both dishonest and a bit insulting to tell them what their issues are,” he said, pointing to other subjects, such as the economy and crime. “They are afraid for the future and they are worried about their safety. I hear it everywhere.”
Tuesday’s election is a real draw, according to officials from both parties. Public polls have been sparse and private party polls have varied widely because turnout in special elections is so difficult to predict. The race will coincide with some of the state’s primaries, but independents — which will determine many close races this fall — cannot vote in nominating contests.
Republicans have passed Ryan and his allies by nearly $1 million on television, according to media-tracking firm AdImpact. But Ryan got a belated boost from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and VoteVets, both of which run ads focused on abortion rights.
In many ways, Ryan is piloting an early test of whether or not abortion access can influence competitive races for Congress. When the Dobbs decision was made, he quickly used his paid TV and mail advertising to highlight his commitment to abortion access. It wasn’t even a discussion about whether to do it, Ryan said in an interview.
He said the Democratic base and independent voters he meets on the campaign trail are reacting to the issue.
But Molinaro, who was once America’s youngest mayor, has ostensibly tried to steer the conversation away from abortion, running a playbook used by several other GOP candidates running in purple districts.
Citing his personal experience growing up on food stamps, Molinaro said a campaign focused on abortion does “a disservice” to the thousands of families “talking desperately about how they’re going to survive tomorrow.”
Democrats have accused Molinaro of shifting his stance on abortion rights based on political winds. During his 2018 statewide run, he said he would support a move to strengthen state protections for abortion rights, which he considers settled law. Now he presents it as a matter that should be decided state by state with little role for Congress.
“They’re having a hard time acknowledging the obvious,” Molinaro said of Democrats, noting that his stance changed with the Supreme Court ruling. “I think the role of the federal government is exceptionally limited.”
Democrats can and should discuss both economic issues and abortion access, Ryan said, but the latter was more salient: “We talk about both, but what resonates most in my discussions, in fact, it is reproductive freedom.”
It’s possible Ryan and Molinaro could end up in Congress by 2023 due to a redistricting quirk. Under the new map due to come into effect in January, both candidates are running for full terms in separate neighboring districts.
If Ryan manages to keep the current version of the seat next week, many in the party believe it would provide a psychological boost for Democrats after a surprisingly productive July in Congress. The party won a major manufacturing bill, a veterans health bill and the marquee package on climate, health and taxation. Democrats also saw closer-than-expected results in other one-off races, from the Kansas abortion referendum to the Minnesota special election.
But even some Republicans who have privately tempered their expectations of a massive red wave believe Democrats are grossly overstating the popularity of their recent bills. This includes Biden’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which the Independent Congressional Accountant said would have a negligible impact on inflation in the near future.
Democrats say this bill contains many popular provisions, including drug pricing reforms and climate incentives. And after months of resentment among their constituents over an unchanged platform, the party now believes it has been offered a reason for its base to run in November.
“I always thought the conversation and dialogue in September and October will play a huge role,” Rep. Greg Meeks (DN.Y.), who watches the race from his perch in Queens. “Winning in New York would be huge in that regard, and just show what the trend is.”