Special election for upstate New York House seat offers new test of political energy around abortion


Saugerties, New York (CNN)An hour after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrat Pat Ryan tweeted out a video that would be his first television ad of the special election campaign to fill this upstate swing seat.

“He fought for our families, for our freedom,” the narrator says, beginning with a slice of the 40-year-old Iraq War veteran’s personal history. But the spot then switches gears and tone, as Ryan turns to address the camera: “And freedom includes a women’s right to choose,” he says. “How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?”

As leaders from both parties search for clues about what lies ahead in November, the vote here on Tuesday — to replace Antonio Delgado, a Democrat who left to become lieutenant governor — has emerged as a national barometer of the political energy unleashed by the high court’s decision to end the nationwide right to abortion. It’s a test of whether Democrats, even in a politically unpredictable congressional district like New York’s 19th, can translate the anger of their base, and concerns over the implications of the ruling that cut across party lines, into a potent midterm message.

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    Ryan, the Ulster County executive, is pitted against his Republican counterpart in neighboring Dutchess County, Marc Molinaro, in a fight to finish Delgado’s term before the Hudson Valley district disappears, split up by a shambolic redistricting process that was only resolved in late May, pushing back House and state Senate primaries from late June to August 23. The current district voted twice for former President Barack Obama before swinging to former President Donald Trump in 2016 and then to President Joe Biden four years later.

      No matter the result in Tuesday’s special election, both candidates could be on the ballot — in separate races — come November. In addition to the special election, Ryan on Tuesday is vying for the Democratic nomination in the new 18th District. Molinaro already secured the GOP’s in a redrawn version of the 19th.

        ‘I talk about freedom’

        Ryan has cast the contest as a referendum on abortion rights, an issue that has been climbing up voters’ list of concerns since the Supreme Court ruling on June 24. Abortion rights advocates’ success in defeating a Kansas ballot measure, which would have allowed lawmakers there to pursue a statewide ban, set off a flood of new donations to his campaign, which says it has now surpassed $2 million.

          The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, recently invested in the race with a “six-figure” ad buy to back Ryan, who’s also been bolstered by more than $500,000 in spending by VoteVets, a Democratic group that supports veteran candidates.

          Signs reading “Choice is on the Ballot” — with a call to vote for Ryan below — are ubiquitous across the leafy, upstate district. At a canvassing kick-off in a small park in Rhinebeck on Saturday, where Delgado revved up supporters before they fanned out to knock on doors, Ryan told CNN that the abortion ruling ran up against an “American democracy guardrail that transcends some of the other issues” being debated on the trail.

          Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, seen here during a February news conference, is running in Tuesday's special election for the 19th District.

          Like the campaigners in Kansas, Ryan has cast the abortion fight in broader terms — and a language more typically associated with conservative or libertarian political arguments.

          “I talk about freedom,” Ryan said. “Because I think the most unifying value that Americans share is freedom — and a lack of excitement about the government telling us what to do in our lives.”

          State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, who joined Ryan and Delgado in Rhinebeck and represents some of the most rural areas of any Democratic state lawmaker, said that even in some of the more conservative enclaves of her district, she has received praise from voters for helping to pass expanded abortion rights protections earlier this year.

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          Hinchey, daughter of the late long-time US Rep. Maurice Hinchey, took office in Albany less than a week before the January 6, 2021, riot on the US Capitol. In Molinaro, she argues, voters who see a moderate Republican should be wary of how a potential place in the Republican House conference could affect his behavior.

          Case-in-point, she said, is Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New Yorker who rose in leadership — replacing Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as No. 3 — after emerging as one of Trump’s staunchest allies and defenders. Molinaro, in the closing week of the campaign, held multiple events with Stefanik.

          “Her evolution happened in front of our eyes,” Hinchey said. “We’ve seen that evolution and we are watching, in real time, Marc show those colors as well. He has been nowhere except with Elise Stefanik over the last handful of days.”

          A longtime political brand

          But Molinaro has a political brand that stretches back decades, to when he was elected mayor of Tivoli as teenager and, years later, in 2018, ran a credible campaign against then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He is, many Republicans believe, an ideal candidate to run for this seat — a conservative who has, at least until now, largely side-stepped any close association with the Trump-era GOP’s divisive national brand.

          In an interview at the Hope Rocks Festival in Saugerties, a lively gathering that brings together local musicians, advocates and artisans to raise funds and awareness for mental health and addiction causes in the region, Molinaro played down his appearances with Stefanik. They will, he noted, represent neighboring districts if he’s elected — and dismissed the insinuation that he’s prepping for a congressional heel turn.

          “I’ve given 29 years of my life — the day I turned 18, I entered into public service. My entire life is transparent, and I have held a public office firmly committed to doing the services and issues,” Molinaro said, though he refused to say whom he voted for in the 2020 presidential election. (He did not support Trump in 2016 and, when asked if the more recent election was legitimately decided, said: “I am woefully aware Joe Biden won the election.”)

          Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, seen here in 2021, is running in Tuesday's special election for the 19th District.

          He also affirmed, as he’s promised in the past, that he would not support a nationwide ban on abortion if elected to Congress. But Molinaro demurred on the question of whether, if the tables were turned, he would vote to codify abortion rights. The 46-year-old, who describes himself as “personally pro-life,” argued that following the Dobbs decision, the decision rests with the states.

          “It is now a new settled paradigm, and the states under this Constitution have the right to establish their policy,” said Molinaro, who had previously described abortion as a “settled constitutional right” during his run for governor.

          Republican state Sen. Sue Serino, who was campaigning with Molinaro on Sunday (and is, coincidentally, running against Hinchey in a clash of incumbents for a newly drawn state Senate district), said Ryan’s focus on abortion, given Democratic control of state government, would not galvanize voters like it might in more conservative regions of the country.

          “It shouldn’t be a concern here in New York state, because it does stay the same. Women are protected,” Serino said. “We have an Equal Rights bill that we voted for.”

          Republicans focus on cashless bail

          Molinaro, like Republicans across the state and nationally, was keener to discuss New York’s controversial 2019 criminal justice reform law, which, though it’s been adjusted since, makes it more difficult for judges to hold suspects on cash bail. Ryan, a supporter of the bill when it passed, backed the subsequent changes and has said he’s open to continued tweaks.

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          “It is singularly a disaster,” Molinaro said. “Imagine this for a second. No New Yorker in the history of New York has ever said these words: New Jersey did it better. Cashless bail in New York undermines law enforcement and weakens public safety.”

          An ad paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has spent more than $1.2 million for Molinaro, mentions the bail law as part of its effort to paint Ryan as an “extreme liberal” in league with anti-police rioters.

          The spot released earlier this month made waves because it displayed an image of Ryan at a Black Lives Matter march in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota. Unsaid, as it turned out: Molinaro also attended the same, peaceful event. (Molinaro has said he has no control over what the NRCC, through its independent expenditure arm, puts out. He’s also being backed by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that has put more than $560,000 into the race.)

          Conversations with voters at the Hope Rocks event, which Ryan visited earlier in the day before Molinaro’s appearance, suggested that both candidates’ messages were resonating.

          Amy Luke, 41, a special education teacher in nearby Kingston, said she was leaning “toward the Democratic candidate,” but wasn’t sure if she would have the time to vote in the rescheduled primary.

          Campaign signs in Rhinebeck, New York, ahead of Tuesday's special election.

          Abortion and education, Luke said, were her main policy concerns, and though she is a registered Democrat, she said she has — and would — stray from the party line under certain circumstances.

          “I definitely like certain aspects of Molinaro’s policies,” Luke said, including his criticism of the bail law. “But I do have fears when somebody has connections with Trump. And it makes me wonder what their ulterior motive is.” (Of his campaigning with Stefanik, she asked, pointedly, “Why?”)

          As Molinaro spoke to a reporter, he was approached by a familiar face. James Dykeman, a musician and preacher in Saugerties, said he had grown up in a nearby town with Molinaro, graduating a few years ahead of him.

          “Everybody’s been watching him, cheering him on,” Dykeman, a Democrat, said. “But also being pretty critical of him.”

          Despite some political differences, Dykeman said he planned to vote for Molinaro on Tuesday. “I really believe that he has integrity and that his integrity is not going to allow him to make the wrong choice because of pressure from a party.”

            After a hard campaign in the special election, there is a decent chance that because they’re also running for seats under the new congressional map, Ryan and Molinaro could be sworn in next year as House members from neighboring districts.

            “Before he started calling me a ‘career politician,’ I thought maybe if he won (in November), we could commute together,” Molinaro joked. “Now he’s gonna have to drive on his own.”