Aug 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

N.Y. special election offers testing ground for midterm messaging

Illustration of election ballots filling a New York state shape

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A U.S. House special election this month in upstate New York is drawing big money and attention from both major parties as a testing ground for midterm messaging tactics nationwide.

Why it matters: The Aug. 23 contest in New York's 19th features two evenly matched candidates in a toss-up district, making it an ideal laboratory to road-test policy and political arguments — on offense and defense — with approaches that can be customized for other races around the country.

  • The district, which covers a large swath of the Hudson Valley, has been a critical building block of House Democrats’ recent majorities.
  • Rep. Antonio Delgado’s resignation in May to serve as lieutenant governor left Democrats defending yet another open seat in an already difficult year.

What we're watching: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to go up with a six-figure ad buy in the district "highlighting Republicans’ extremism on banning abortion," DCCC spokesperson Nebe Betre told Axios.

  • The National Republican Congressional Committee is already on the air there. "Republicans have a great opportunity to flip another district this cycle," said NRCC spokesperson Samantha Bullock.

Between the lines: Both parties are fielding popular executives of the district’s two population centers — each with proven cross-party appeal.

  • Democrat Pat Ryan, an Iraq veteran, previously ran for the seat in 2018 and finished second in the primary behind Delgado. He was elected Ulster County executive in 2019 with 74% of the vote, compared with his Democratic predecessor’s 55% four years earlier.
  • Republican Marc Molinaro, whose lengthy political resume includes stints as a 19-year-old mayor and GOP nominee for governor, won re-election as Dutchess County executive in 2019 with 59%. A year later, President Biden won the county by nine points.

Flashback: In 2018, when Delgado challenged Rep. John Faso, Republicans ran ads highlighting Delgado’s profane rap lyrics.

  • In the current race, the candidates are keeping it professional: "Pat and I have been friends," Molinaro told Axios.

State of play: Instead, the candidates are clashing on policy and politics, each heralding their parties’ lines of attack.

  • Molinaro, like many Republicans, has hammered on inflation, crime and rising gas prices.
  • Ryan has focused on issues like abortion, guns and democracy, branding the race as the first federal general election in the post-Roe era.

What they're saying: Ryan rejects the notion of the race as a referendum on the party in power, telling Axios it's really about Republican "extremism" and the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court, which struck down Roe v. Wade and a New York gun law.

  • He argues that Democrats "have delivered a lot" in the past two years, including stimulus and infrastructure funding, while Republicans are facing a "power grab by the extremist wing."
  • Despite running in a purple district, Ryan doesn’t shy away from proposed reforms such as expanding the court, judicial term limits and nuking the filibuster: “I think we have to have all options on the table."
  • He also doesn’t endorse any restrictions on abortion: "It’s the decision of a doctor and a person and a family, and the government doesn’t have a place."

The other side: Molinaro is trying to blunt Democrats' attacks on abortion restrictions by casting himself as the reasonable candidate on the issue, telling Axios: "I believe that I fall very much in line with most Americans and most upstate New Yorkers."

  • Molinaro said he supports state restrictions on abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but believes Congress has a "very, very limited role."
  • "I don't endorse New York’s limitless access," he said. "There ought to be some thoughtful limitations, with an acknowledgement that this is a very sensitive issue."
  • That echoes, almost to the letter, one Republican campaign committee’s advice to candidates after Roe was overturned.

Ryan, by the same token, is trying to outflank Molinaro on the economy by casting himself as the true cost-cutter in the race.

  • Whereas his first ad focused on abortion, his latest talks about how he fought energy price hikes and "greedy corporations" as county executive.
  • Ryan said of his strategy: "The idea that Americans should have to choose between the economy and access to abortion is absurd ... our campaign is about addressing both of those."
  • "I've never raised taxes, as opposed to Molinaro," he added.

The bottom line: Both candidates recognize the race's broader implications .

  • "Winning on Aug. 23 sends a very clear message that Republicans [who] connect with their voters and can provide real alternatives can win in districts like these," Molinaro said.
  • Ryan said: "I really believe it is an existential moment and test of our democracy."
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