August 24

By Kaia Hubbard

A Democratic candidate won a special election on Tuesday for a House seat in an upstate New York swing district that’s for years moved with the national mood and this year turned to a large degree on a single issue: abortion.

Democrat Pat Ryan won 52% of the vote to his Republican opponent’s 48%, as voters sided with the Democrat pledging to protect abortion rights. But the results are a victory for Democrats far beyond the upstate New York district, pointing to the power of their messaging on abortion heading into November’s elections.

Despite the massive victory for conservatives that was the fall of Roe v. Wade this summer, frustration over the decision to roll back abortion rights is proving to have staying power among the electorate. And as Democrats seek to harness the decision rolling back abortion rights as a rallying cry for their base, some have noted that the push for Roe’s fall may ultimately backfire on Republicans come November.

Indeed, polling from the Pew Research Center suggests that most voters, at 56%, now say access to abortion is “very important” to their vote in the midterms, up 13 percentage points since March.

The issue has made its way into campaign ads throughout the country, especially among Democrats who have positioned the topic as a foil to Republicans’ inflation and crime messaging. In the New York House race, Ryan, a Democratic county executive, made abortion rights central to his messaging – releasing a video just an hour after Roe was overturned saying “freedom includes a woman’s right to choose.”

While his Republican opponent, Marc Molinaro, focused on opposition to Joe Biden, inflation and crime, Ryan continued to hail abortion rights, positioning himself as a veteran fighting to protect American freedom while brandishing his pink campaign signs with the slogan: “CHOICE IS ON THE BALLOT.”

Still, although the special election to fill the seat opened when Antonio Delgado was appointed lieutenant governor may be seen as a bellwether for abortion’s political power, it has drawn questions about whether the same can be said during the midterms, which tend to draw more voters to the ballot box than primaries. And ultimately, whether support for abortion – or opposition to it – will motivate voters across the board in the midterms remains to be seen, despite claims that it may slow or halt an expected red wave in Congress.

Earlier this year, a referendum in Kansas gave the first glimpse of how the the backlash from the Supreme Court’s decision may have the political force to jolt the midterm elections out of a GOP wave that many analysts have predicted, as voters in Kansas turned out in record numbers in the deep-red state with a Republican-controlled legislature and refused to give the decision on abortion rights back to their elected representatives. By a staggering margin, Kansans decided that the protections for abortion should stay.

In addition to the results of the New York special election, in a state where abortion rights are largely protected, Kansas’ vote may indicate that a desire to protect abortion rights will be even more of a driving force in the midterm elections than previously thought, tipping races in a handful of states in the Democrats’ favor this fall. In conservative Kansas, the amendment was particularly unpopular in the suburbs, where Republicans have been hoping to make inroads. In the 2018 midterms, suburban voters were seen as vital for returning control of the House to Democrats.

With the win in New York’s 19th District, Ryan will serve out the remainder of Delgado’s term. But he’ll be back come November seeking a full term in Congress in New York’s 18th District, after redistricting upended New York’s usual breakdown. Molinaro, too, is seeking a full term in Congress within a redrawn version of the 19th District he lost.

“Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won,” Ryan wrote in a tweet following his victory. “We voted like our democracy was on the line because it is. We upended everything we thought we knew about politics and did it together.