The state at the center of Democrats’ uphill drive to keep the House just gave the party the strongest signal yet that their fortunes might be reversing.
After a special election campaign centered on abortion rights, turnout surged Tuesday in Democratic Rep.-elect Pat Ryan’s home turf of Ulster County — the most heavily populated section of New York’s battleground 19th District. Ryan’s margins even narrowly exceeded President Joe Biden’s performance over Donald Trump’s in the county in 2020, giving him the cushion to withstand drop-off elsewhere in the district and win a bellwether race just months before the general election.
Ryan’s victory is the latest in a string of recent signs suggesting that Republicans may not be poised to deliver the shellacking that many expected this fall — and that Democrats, who spent months mired in infighting, off-year election routs and abysmal poll numbers, are getting a jolt of momentum. National generic ballot polling has been slowly trending to the left. In Washington state’s top-two primary earlier this month, the partisan split in Senate and congressional elections fell squarely in between the Democratic wave year of 2018 and strong Republican years in 2010 and 2014, suggesting a more neutral environment.
“There are 222 seats in the House that are better in terms of the Biden vote than New York 19,” said Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.“That is the canary in the coal mine for what’s coming. And it’s not the first time, right, we saw it happen,” pointing to special elections in Minnesota and Nebraska and a referendum on abortion rights in Kansas.
Indeed, Ryan’s win is part of a string of four special elections across three states showing growing suburban enthusiasm for Democrats since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which undid the national protection of abortion rights previously granted under Roe v. Wade.
“When we really clearly stand up and fight and say what our principles are and don’t pull our punches, we inspire people, we get people motivated and energized, and we win,” Ryan said in an interview Tuesday with POLITICO.
Here’s what happened in those four districts — and what they tell us about the shifting political environment.
In the closely watched 19th Congressional District, a rare special election in a true swing district, Ryan took home about 51.1 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results as of midday Wednesday. New York continues accepting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day for seven days after.
Ryan’s performance was about 1.5 percentage points ahead of Biden’s 2020 performance in the district, though several points behind former Rep. Antonio Delgado’s margin that year. That jump was driven by high Democratic turnout from voters who also showed up for primary elections for full terms in the newly redrawn 18th and 19th Districts (parts of both are included in the old 19th where the special took place.) In six of the seven counties fully inside the district boundaries, the share of Democratic voters who cast a primary ballot was higher than the share of overall registered voters who voted in the special election — suggesting Democrats turned out at higher rates than Republicans or independents.
Republicans insist they are not worried about the loss, blaming it largely on low interest among voters not aligned with a political party, who are likely to turn out at much higher rates in November. These independents — who will determine dozens of swing seats in the fall — had less incentive to participate in a special election held on the same day as New York’s closed party primaries, in which they cannot vote.
“Any Democrat celebrating holding a seat they won last cycle by double digits is in for a rough November,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, referencing Delgado’s 2020 margin. “We will continue to remind voters Democrats are responsible for historic price increases, surging violent crime, and a southern border that has been completely overrun by drug cartels and human smugglers.”
The unofficial results show that defeated Republican Marc Molinaro actually received a higher share of the vote than most recent Republican candidates in practically every corner of the district. But the difference was that turnout in its Democratic-friendly portions was far higher.
“People are seeing every election matters,” said state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat from Ulster. “The decisions over the last few months have really reengaged people and worked them up to what is at stake right now. And it’s not business as usual.”
Democrats actually made greater gains compared to 2020 in Western New York’s 23rd District, where Max Della Pia brought in 46.4 percent of the special election vote, according to unofficial results. That’s more than 3 percentage points better than Biden’s performance there two years ago, but not enough to beat out Republican Joseph Sempolinski, who will fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Tom Reed.
The biggest gain for Democrats by vote share was in Tompkins County, home of Ithaca, where Della Pia took home 85 percent of the vote compared to 73 percent for Joe Biden two years prior.
Ryan’s victory in the special election was the first actual Democratic special election victory this summer, after candidates in Nebraska and Minnesota overperformed Biden’s numbers — but came up short of wins in districts that had been held by Republicans. In southern Minnesota, Democrat Jeff Ettinger ran about 3 percentage points ahead of Biden’s 2020 margin, though that still was not enough to top Brad Finstad, a Republican who filled the seat left open by the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn.
While the self-funding Ettinger outspent Finstad, the race attracted only sparse outside spending, all in support of the Republican. That frustrated some Minnesota Democrats who thought they had a chance to flip a rare open seat in the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
“The moment that decision came out, you started hearing from people at the doors,” Martin said.
In a special election in late June just days after the Dobbs ruling, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks, a Nebraska state senator, improved nearly five points on Biden’s margin in the state’s deep-red 1st Congressional District, which Trump had won by 11 percentage points. She still came up short against now-Rep. Mike Flood.
Pansing Brooks’ biggest gains came in the populous Lancaster County, which contains the state capital of Lincoln. She won 56.6 percent of the vote there in the special election, compared to 52.7 percent for Biden two years prior.
In the closing days of the race, Pansing Brooks released a TV ad where she vowed to push back against a “Supreme Court assault on women’s rights” — despite the cautions of some her advisers. She attributes her close margin to the shocking ruling and said she wished she had more time for the news to sink in with the electorate before the special election.
“I did better than any Democrat since ‘64 in my congressional district,” she said. “I beat Biden by 5 points. I beat the predecessor who ran that was a Democrat by 13. We really felt like the momentum was there.”
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