National attention is bearing down on New York’s 19th Congressional District, where Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and Democratic Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan are facing off next month to replace Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado in the purple Hudson Valley district through the end of 2022.
If Ryan, whose first television ad focused on protecting abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, wins the Aug. 23 special election, it will likely signal to other Democrats in closely contested districts that rallying voters around a backlash to SCOTUS’s sharp right turn could prove a winning strategy in November.
But if Ryan wins – a big if in a swing district where Molinaro has a strong foothold and a fundraising advantage – the Ulster County executive won’t have long to focus on legislating in the 19th District. Ryan is simultaneously running in the newly drawn 18th Congressional District, which along with the rest of the newly drawn congressional districts, is holding its primaries on Aug. 23 ahead of the November general election. Also running in the 18th District primary is Moses Mugulusi, a state financial examiner, and Democratic strategist Aisha Mills. The winner will face Republican Assembly Member Colin Schmitt in November. Molinaro, meanwhile, is running in the new 19th Congressional District in November and will face either small business owner Jamie Cheney or attorney Josh Riley, who are both running in the Democratic primary for that district.
One of the many quirks produced by New York’s chaotic redistricting process this year, Ryan’s simultaneous run for the old 19th Congressional District – to represent through end of 2022 – and the new 18th Congressional District – to represent starting in January 2023 – may nonetheless provide him an opportunity to test the salience of running on a promise to protect abortion rights.
The special election”is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve for November with Dutchess County independents and moderate Republicans, building around those issues where independents swing against the Republicans,” said Democratic consultant Bruce Gyory, who is not working with any of the candidates in these races. Gyory identified two of those issues and abortion rights and gun control.
The old 19th Congressional District includes Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Otsego, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster counties, and parts of Broome, Dutchess, Montgomery and Rensselaer, but Dutchess County in particular has drawn attention as a top battleground county. It has typically elected Republicans locally – including Molinaro – but has swung left in federal elections. The county used to be divided into the 18th and 19th congressional districts, but under the new congressional map, it will almost entirely reside in the 18th District.Whether abortion rights will be an issue that cuts for Ryan is not yet clear. Molinaro argues that voters – independent and moderate Republicans included – are more tuned into economic issues, especially as New York has already codified abortion rights into state law. “What I think we need to be doing is reinvesting in our communities by driving down costs,” Molinaro said. “That’s taxation, that’s regulation and making it easier for small businesses to grow to medium-sized businesses.”
It’s those issues, along with public safety, that Molinaro and other Republicans in the area said will energize voters to turn out in a late August special election – not abortion. “I don’t know how that plays out with the average voter in Dutchess,” said Gregg Pulver, the Republican chair of the Dutchess County Legislature, of Ryan’s move to center abortion rights in his campaign. “I think people are concerned about gas prices, about inflation, about security.” Some polling suggests that he’s right, with inflation and gas pricing topping voters’ greatest concerns.
But this special election will be the first post-Roe test of whether the backlash on SCOTUS’ recent rulings galvanize independent voters. (Democrats have a slight advantage in voter enrollment in the 19th Congressional District – 175,715 active registered Democrats to 157,170 Republicans – but more than 118,000 voters were listed as unaffiliated as of June.) “It’s the right thing to focus on,” said Jen Metzger, the former state Senator who represented Sullivan County and parts of Orange, Ulster and Delaware counties from 2019 to 2020, said of the SCOTUS ruling on Roe. “(Ryan) has framed it well: How can we be a free country if the government is trying to control our bodies? Many people in my district don’t agree with this specific issue, but there’s that broader context of it really being an attack on our rights and freedoms.”
Molinaro, meanwhile, stood behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that abortion should be decided at the state level. “I am personally pro-life. I have accepted, however, that the law of America was universal access,” he said. “That doesn't change in New York. And the Supreme Court decided that now states get to make those determinations.” Asked whether he would vote in favor of federal legislation restricting access to abortion if he were elected, Molinaro did not directly answer but referred again to the SCOTUS ruling. “The Supreme Court decided that this is a decision made by states,” Molinaro said. “And so the states make this choice, not the federal government. And that's my view.”
In light of New York already acting to codify abortion rights, Molinaro has accused Ryan of playing politics by focusing in on Roe. But Ryan said that Congress needs Democrats in office to codify not just abortion rights – but fight for gun control measures too. “We must rally what is the widely popularly held view by Americans, that the government should not have a say in individual health care decisions,” Ryan said. “I am confident that if we really fight that way, we can codify Roe and the principles of Roe, we can put in place things like an assault weapons ban.” Ryan demurred a bit when asked if he would be in favor of expanding the Supreme Court, but said that “every option” should be on the table.
Ryan referred to the assault weapons he wants to see banned as the same he carried in combat while serving as an Army intelligence officer in Iraq. Before being elected as Ulster County executive in 2019, Ryan founded a technology company, and in 2018, he ran in the Democratic primary for the 19th Congressional District, falling short to Delgado.
Molinaro has served as Dutchess County executive since 2012, following stints in the Dutchess County Legislature and the Assembly. In 2018, he was the state’s Republican nominee for governor but lost to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a landslide.
Though Ryan has made combatting the direction of the Supreme Court central to his own campaign, both candidates are touting their experience running their respective counties as managers equipped to tackle the economic pressures hitting their constituents. “Most of the time, the federal government is bloated and broken when it comes to spending our (tax) dollars,” Molinaro said. “And that’s everything. For me, it’s discretionary spending, military spending, it’s on the table for enhancing efficiency and delivering real results.” Both have also emphasized the need to make greater investments mental health care – something they’ve both done as county executives.
In the two months since Ryan entered the race, the Ulster County executive has far outraised Molinaro, pulling in roughly $1.1 million as of June 30, compared to $471,000 raised by Molinaro in the last quarter. Molinaro has still raised more overall, bringing in a total of almost $1.5 million.
Whether or not centering abortion rights ends up being a strategy that can turn out swing voters or garner Ryan an even larger influx of funding, Gyory said the Ulster County executive doesn’t have much to lose in the effort. “If he beats expectations in Dutchess in the special election and also does well in Dutchess in the primary for the new 18th District, that'll show that this strategy made sense,” Gyory said.
Read our 2022 congressional primaries coverage here.