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New York special election to test whether abortion is weakening midterm red wave

A special congressional election in upstate New York on Tuesday could offer a unique window into whether abortion access is animating voters as much as Democrats hope it can.

Republican Marc Molinaro and Democrat Pat Ryan are squaring off this week in New York’s 19th Congressional District, which former Rep. Antonio Delgado vacated in May to become the state’s lieutenant governor.

Polls suggest the race is extremely tight heading into an Election Day that analysts will watch closely for clues about the GOP’s strength. While Republicans have for months expected to wrest control of Congress away from Democrats by decisive margins, more recent numbers suggest the red wave so frequently predicted by pundits could be considerably weaker by November.


The New York race has provided a chance for each party to prove its theory of the case for the midterm elections. Democrats have bet the Supreme Court’s landmark decision this summer on abortion will anger enough otherwise disinterested voters to overcome the lack of enthusiasm pollsters detected earlier this year.

Republicans have banked on a backlash to the struggling economy to sweep them into congressional majorities.

For his part, Molinaro has drilled down on the issues where Democrats are arguably the weakest: crime and high prices.

He’s spent time pushing affordable housing, attacking New York’s cashless bail system, and talking with voters about the effects of the national labor shortage.

But Molinaro has largely sidestepped strong positions on abortion while campaigning. The Republican said he would not back an effort in Congress to ban abortion access, even though he has described himself as pro-life.

Ryan’s campaign has centered on abortion, which he has sought to elevate even though New York has relatively few restrictions on the procedure.

“How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?” Ryan asks in one ad as he strolls through what appears to be a hospital.

Cartney McCracken, a Democratic strategist, pointed to voters’ overwhelming support for protecting abortion rights in red Kansas through a ballot initiative earlier this month as evidence that abortion is a motivating issue.

“The Kansas abortion amendment clearly highlights the strength of the pro-choice movement in the wake of overturning Roe v. Wade,” McCracken told the Washington Examiner.

“As Republicans have no accomplishments to tout, they’re banking that inflation messaging will pull them through,” she added. “But what I’m looking at, in the wake of the FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago and multiple Trump investigations, are the recent NBC News poll results that the vast majority of Americans see the threat to democracy as their top most concerning issue.”

Redistricting has made the contest a structural mess. While both candidates are running to fill a vacancy in the current 19th Congressional District for the special election this week, Ryan will shift gears and compete until November in the 18th Congressional District after election night — regardless of whether he wins. That’s because the newly redrawn map puts his home in the 18th District, and that map will be in effect by November.

Molinaro is competing for a full term in the 19th Congressional District whether he wins or loses the special election this week. He’ll face a different opponent, whom voters will select Tuesday in a Democratic primary, for the final weeks of the midterm elections, but Tuesday’s results will determine if he runs as an incumbent or to unseat a short-lived one.

Their clash also comes as long-held assumptions about how Republicans will perform collide with new evidence that Democrats are gaining ground.

Republicans had for months enjoyed a lead in the so-called generic ballot, a survey question that asks voters which party they would back if the election were held today.

But more recent polls have shown that lead narrow, and the RealClearPolitics average of the generic ballot finds Republicans clinging to a 0.2-point advantage.

The 19th District special election could offer a window into whether that red wave is approaching. While a Democrat represented the district previously, the area leans slightly toward Republicans, according to the data website FiveThirtyEight.

President Joe Biden won the district by less than 2 points in 2020, and his popularity has fallen considerably since then.


But more than Biden’s performance, abortion could determine who serves the remainder of Delgado’s term.

Ryan has placed nearly all of his chips on the prospect of the issue swaying voters, distributing signs that read, “Choice is on the ballot,” and casting the fight for abortion access as existential.

The race will also test whether the centrist Republican strategy of declining to stake out strong positions on abortion, and instead deferring to states, can help candidates withstand a wave of outcry over the Supreme Court ruling.

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