New York’s special elections give national Democrats renewed hope

Republican Joe Sempolinski pulled off a relatively narrow win in the Southern Tier, while Democrat Pat Ryan beat the odds in the 19th District.

Democrat Pat Ryan narrowly won in the 19th District special election.

Democrat Pat Ryan narrowly won in the 19th District special election. Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The results of New York’s two special elections are buoying Democrats’ hopes of maintaining control of Congress in November. Republican Joe Sempolinski won the Southern Tier’s 23rd District, but pulled off the win by a surprisingly slim margin. Meanwhile, Democrat Pat Ryan’s victory in the 19th District, which spans the Catskills and Hudson Valley, indicated the party’s abortion rights narrative in the wake of the reversal of Roe v. Wade can rally voters to the polls.

The district Ryan will represent is R+2 under the current lines, but it’s a toss-up under the newly drawn lines that will take effect next year, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures the political leanings of a district compared to the nation as a whole. Biden won the district by 4 percentage points and Trump by 2 points in 2016. Ryan netted 51% of votes on Tuesday, compared to his Republican opponent Marc Molinaro’s 49%.

Sempolinski, the Steuben County Republican Committee chair and a former aide to Rep. Tom Reed, beat Democrat Max Della Pia by 7 percentage points to fill his former boss’s seat. The margin of victory was underwhelming compared with Cook’s model showing the district leaned R+11. Trump, however, won the 23rd District by more than 18 percentage points in both 2016 and 2020. The newly drawn district is R+12.

The winners of both contests will serve just four months of the remainder of their predecessors’ terms. Ryan is his party’s nominee in November for a full term in the 18th District, while Sempolinksi said he will return home to Steuben County after his brief stint on Capitol Hill.

The 19th District in particular was seen as a proving ground for the messaging strategies deployed by both party establishments nationally. While Ryan, the Ulster County executive, leaned heavily on abortion rights, Molinaro campaigned on curbing crime and fighting inflation.

Historically, the president’s party almost always loses seats during midterms, and that’s likely to happen this year as well, according to various outlooks, though Republicans’ anticipated gains in the House may be dwindling. The Cook Political Report revised its midterm outlook on Wednesday, citing the results of the special elections in the 19th and 23rd Districts, among others, to predict the GOP will gain 10-20 seats, down from 15-30 in early June. The GOP’s chances of winning the Senate were also weaker. “The coin is definitely in the air for the Senate. That chamber could remain 50-50, or either party gain a seat or two with very small numbers of votes making the difference,” Charlie Cook, political analyst and founder of Cook Political Report, wrote Thursday.

Based on FiveThirtyEight’s polling algorithm, voters since early August have slightly favored Democrats to maintain control of Congress, a shift from earlier in the summer when Republicans were up more than 2 percentage points. The trend has moved congruent to President Joe Biden’s approval ratings. As of Thursday, his approval rating stood at 42%, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling algorithm, up from 37% just a month ago.