NY-19 – or the one where Marc Molinaro doesn’t have it in the bag

The Republican county exec initially had reason for optimism to prevail over newcomer Josh Riley. That’s changed.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro is running for Congress.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro is running for Congress. Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post via Getty Images

When a judge finally approved congressional district lines and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro decided he would run in the 19th Congressional District, he likely felt good about his prospects. His special election opponent then-Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, whom he battled for the old version of the district over the summer, chose to run for a full term in a different district. Although Molinaro lost that August special election to fill the seat vacated by Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado, Molinaro found himself in a general election battle with first-time Democratic candidate Josh Riley. As a former gubernatorial candidate with a fairly moderate and bipartisan track record, it would have seemed like it was Molinaro’s race to lose. 

It turns out that’s not the case. Molinaro not only lost to Ryan in the special election and therefore lost the benefit of even a short-lived incumbency, he underperformed in areas of the district where political observers expected him to dominate. And public polling for the general election gives Riley the edge, increasing from a statistical tie in August to a 5-percentage point lead earlier this month. 

At one time, Molinaro’s victory would have seemed inevitable. About as strong as a Republican candidate can get in New York state, many expected he would unseat Delgado before the former member of Congress stepped down. And he was the favored candidate in his special election. But like so many other Republicans who expected major midterm victories with Democratic control in Washington, Molinaro may fall victim to his own party’s agenda.

The situation in the Hudson Valley and Southern Tier district became complicated when Delgado became lieutenant governor during a redistricting year. It created a vacancy in the old version of the district which needed to be filled at the same time voters weighed in on who would represent them in the new version of the district. When candidates and voters finally had finalized lines, that meant a potentially confusing situation between the 18th and 19th Districts. At the same time Molinaro and Ryan faced off in the old 19th District, Ryan had announced he would run in the new 18th District, where he lived, while Molinaro decided to remain in the new 19th District, despite it excluding all of Dutchess County. That meant no general election rematch – Ryan will face Republican Assembly Member Colin Schmitt, while Molinaro will take on Riley. 

Although the special election ultimately has little bearing on the general election race for the 19th Congressional District, the bellwether contest still proved at least one major thing: Republicans had reason to worry. Ryan won the race by a close, but definitive margin, despite conventional wisdom suggesting that Molinaro had the advantage. And between the old and new versions of the 19th Congressional district, the old version certainly favored him more. Left without his base in Dutchess County, an underperformance in the Republican-heavy Rensselaer County, new Democratic strongholds added to the district and the Supreme Court decision to overturn the federal right to an abortion, Molinaro entered his contest against Riley in a comparatively weaker position. “I would have handicapped this race in favor of Molinaro absent any other information,” Daniel Magleby, an associate professor of political science at Binghamton University, told City & State last month. “But given what happened in the special and given what we are seeing around the country … it makes it hard for me to stick to that prior evaluation.”

Still, Molinaro had one big advantage over Riley: an established track record and name recognition. A lawyer who grew up in the district and recently moved back after nearly a decade in other parts of the country, Riley had never before held nor run for office. Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added him to its “Red to Blue” program that supports select candidates attempting to flip Republican seats (even though that wasn’t exactly the case in this race), Riley had significant history to compete against. Molinaro not only entered the race as an elected official already, he has also outraised and outspent his opponent so far.

But even with advantages in his corner, Molinaro cannot escape the influences of his national party, with Riley's lead growing as Election Day approaches according to polling from Siena College. “It’s incredibly humbling for me to have so much support and enthusiasm behind this campaign, particularly as a first-time candidate,” Riley told City & State. “But I gotta tell you, I think the conventional wisdom that a career politician who’s been doing this for 30 years has an advantage over a first-time candidate I think gets upstate New York backwards.” He said that voters he has spoken with are craving “new leadership.” Molinaro’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment. 

Riley pointed to his endorsement by Planned Parenthood and his support of abortion rights as one of the differences between himself and Molinaro, adding that his opponent believes that abortion rights should be left up to the states. However, Molinaro on the campaign trail has given no indication that is the case. Although personally anti-abortion, Molinaro has said that he would not support a federal abortion ban. And when speaking at a town hall last month, he said that he doesn’t “want government in the specific decision making that women will have to make” while defending his support of restrictions on abortions after 17 weeks.

Still, Republicans made abortion rights a Democratic rallying cry after its decadeslong endeavor to overturn Roe v. Wade came to fruition. The victory may cost Republicans like Molinaro electoral victories in November. Despite holding middle of the road positions on abortion compared to other members of his party, Democrats are hammering him on the issue, with the DCCC releasing an ad late last month that painted him as an anti-abortion extremist. The success of the national party agenda may well have cost Molinaro his special election victory. And now, it very well could cost him a seat in Congress.