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Special election in New York looks like a bellwether — but will it be?

Voters in special election Tuesday won’t be the same in November

Marc Molinaro, Republican candidate for the New York 19th Congressional district, tours the dairy barn at the Delaware County Fair in Walton, N.Y., on Thursday.
Marc Molinaro, Republican candidate for the New York 19th Congressional district, tours the dairy barn at the Delaware County Fair in Walton, N.Y., on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

WALTON, N.Y. — There’s no way to avoid portraying Tuesday’s special election to fill the House seat vacated when Democrat Antonio Delgado became lieutenant governor in May as a national bellwether.

Yes, President Joe Biden carried this district by about 1.5 points in 2020 after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost it by 1.7 points. And yes, there have been efforts to make the race a national referendum on everything from the president’s handling of inflation to the Supreme Court’s recent opinions on abortion and guns. But an August special election in a redistricting cycle on the same day as the House primary using different maps for November contests may be more complicated than that.

Republican Marc Molinaro, the 2018 GOP nominee for governor, is running in the special election to serve the remaining months of Delgado’s term, and in the November election for a full two-year term. Both elections are being run in the 19th District, but the constituents voting in those elections on Tuesday and in November will be different. He’s trying to keep the focus on voters rather than national politics.

“There’s a need, and this district deserves a voice,” Molinaro said in an interview between handshakes as he greeted voters at the Delaware County Fair here on Thursday. “It would be a disservice if the national message — if the national media, the national party — gets to hijack from them the real anxiety, the real pressure and the real challenges they face.”

Molinaro, the county executive in Dutchess County in the Hudson Valley, tried to use the changing boundaries of the district to his advantage when he and Democratic special election opponent Pat Ryan, the Ulster County executive, met at a candidate forum last week in Roscoe, N.Y., a town in Sullivan County.

Win or lose in the special on Tuesday, Ryan will also be running in November, but that race will be in the 18th District, not the 19th, because of where his home ended up in redistricting. Molinaro tried to use that as a reason not to elect Ryan in the special election.

“With all due respect to Pat, on Aug. 24, he’s going to begin campaigning in Orange and Putnam and southern Dutchess County. This county needs a representative on Aug. 24, Sullivan County needs a representative on Aug. 24,” Molinaro said. “There is no personal alive who thinks on Aug. 24, he would be able to serve this district while running in an entirely different one.”

Ryan contested that premise when an attendee who identified herself as a local Republican leader asked about it after the candidate forum, which was held at the beer garden behind the Roscoe Beer Co., off Route 17. Ryan said that in his career in public life, he has always worked to represent all of his constituents.

“My wife would have probably literally disowned me, if I said we’re going to move,” Ryan said. “We live in the old 19th … and the new 18th. It’s also where I grew up.”

Though Delgado won the “old 19th” by more than 11 points in 2020, Biden’s victory by less than 2 would arguably give the GOP an advantage on Tuesday given the president’s popularity drop since then and the historical tendency for the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the special election a Toss-up.

A Ryan victory on Tuesday, meanwhile, may show the limits of any incoming “red wave” of Republican victories in November. Ryan argues that voters have been galvanized by two recent Supreme Court decisions: the opinion that threw out New York State’s barriers to carrying a handgun outside the home, and the ruling that overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent, opening the floodgates for states to impose restrictions and bans on abortion access.

“We’re definitely seeing it on the ground here and I think it will absolutely drive a lot of people out,” Ryan said in an interview. “It’s just sort of like a guardrail was hit, two seismic Supreme Court decisions, putting more guns on our streets, and taking away a right that had been protected for over 50 years to have access to abortion and reproductive health rights.”

Speaking during the candidate forum, Molinaro said he had grown up, like many others, thinking abortion policy was settled law, but he said that efforts to enact a federal law providing abortion restrictions would not stand up to constitutional scrutiny given what the Supreme Court has said.

“We’re not going to undo the Supreme Court decision, and again, the Constitution is pretty clear: it becomes a state issue, which means where does the federal government provide its help?” Molinaro said. “I think it provides its help by assisting women to get access that they deserve, assisting those who need access to contraception.”

Headded, “We fundamentally ought to be talking about what we value about life and how we support one another in what is now the new paradigm.”

Democratic candidate Patrick Ryan, right, speaks as Republican candidate Marc Molinaro listens during the New York 19th District special election candidate forum at the Roscoe Beer Co. in Roscoe, N.Y. on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ryan said that “absolutely” he would support legislation to codify the former protections of Roe v. Wade through federal legislation as Democrats in the House and Senate have attempted, and as Biden supports.

“The other thing that I think is critical, there are members of the Republican Party in Washington right now calling for a national ban on abortion, which I understand that the Supreme Court said in their decision they’re deferring to the states,” Ryan said. “But this this proposed federal legislation, the bills have been written, the language exists. There are members of Congress calling for this right now.”

Regardless of the results Tuesday, there’s a possibility both county executives could be serving in the 118th Congress, since the race in the redrawn 18th District where Ryan is running in November is rated Lean Democratic by Inside Elections, while the race in the new 19th is a Toss-up.

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