The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A surprise win for Democrats hints at a big shift for 2022

Rep.-elect Pat Ryan. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

“I honestly can’t believe it,” Pat Ryan told a crowd after his unexpected victory in a closely watched special election for a House seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. “I cannot believe it.”

And it’s true: Ryan’s razor-thin victory surprised his own advisers, because they did not expect quite the turnout he ended up generating. It helped enable him to eke out a win in a true swing district that went for President Biden by only 1.5 points in 2020 and was expected to swing to Republicans in keeping with historical midterm patterns.

That turnout, it appears, was driven in part by the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. After that ruling, Democrats looked to this race to gauge whether campaigning hard on abortion rights could shift the political environment and blunt GOP advantages.

In this district, it did. Ryan ran ads highlighting his military service and linking it to the fight to defend our freedoms, stating unambiguously that those freedoms include “a woman’s right to choose” and that he’ll defend it in Congress.

“We centered the concept of freedom,” Ryan told me in an interview. “When rights and freedoms are being taken away from people,” he said, they “stand up and fight.” Ryan said that for voters, the decision “ripping away reproductive rights from tens of millions of people” was “visceral.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

By contrast, Ryan’s GOP opponent, Marc Molinaro, tended to avoid the abortion debate. As The Post’s David Weigel reports, Molinaro campaigned on other issues he said were more important — such as inflation and crime — and even stressed that abortions are still accessible in New York.

But it’s not clear Republicans can escape this battle in swing districts. We’ve now see four special elections since the Roe decision, and a big pro-choice win in a Kansas referendum. Many analysts say Democrats are significantly outperforming expectations.

Underscoring the point, Ryan said that at a recent event involving voters from two of the district’s more rural counties, audience members were asked to submit questions. “The number one question people asked was about choice,” Ryan, the Ulster County executive, told me. He said voters regularly brought up GOP calls for a national abortion ban “unprompted.”

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
The 2022 midterms
When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is already underway. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries leading up to the 2022 midterms.
Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.
Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.
What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.
Who has Trump endorsed? The former president has been flexing his political influence in this year’s Republican primaries. While the large majority of Trump’s endorsees — of whom most were incumbents — won their primaries so far, several nonincumbents lost.

1/5

End of carousel

I asked Ryan if the Democratic Party should full-throatedly argue that electing Democrats is essential to getting abortion rights codified in federal law. He said it should, while suggesting Democrats should link this to “the fight for freedom on multiple fronts,” under an umbrella argument that Republicans will make us “less safe” and “less free.”

Ryan suggested Democrats should also try to reclaim the idea of patriotism. “Patriotism to me means, when your fellow Americans’ rights are being taken away, you stand up and fight, not just for yourself, but for them as well.”

Energy in Democratic areas was critical. The two big Democratic-leaning counties in Tuesday’s election — Ulster and Dutchess — accounted for 42 percent of total votes in the district, up from 36 percent in 2020. As NBC’s Steve Kornacki notes, Democrats “squeezed a lot more votes out of the core Democratic areas,” demonstrating “energy” and “enthusiasm.”

Importantly, Ryan said the “visceral” reaction of voters isn’t just about abortion. While he said inflation and economic pain continue to weigh heavily, he also encountered voter angst about gun violence, ongoing threats to democracy, and the insurrection attempt incited by Donald Trump.

“People care about safety,” Ryan told me. “I have a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. I have to drop them at day care and worry that they’re going to get gunned down by the same assault rifle I carried in combat for 27 months.”

Ryan also cited a recent poll showing that a top issue for voters has become threats to democracy. When he saw that poll, he said to himself, “That is exactly what I’m feeling on the ground.”

There is a strange assumption underlying much punditry that inflation and gas prices are more “real” and “authentic” for voters than these other issues. But the radicalization of Republicans is also a factor, Ryan suggested, citing gun violence, voting rights and reproductive rights as “foundational” for people.

“There’s sort of this power grab of the far, far right,” Ryan told me. “It’s just wildly out of step with where the vast majority of Americans are.”

There are big caveats here. Special elections aren’t always predictive of fall elections with larger turnout and a more varied electorate. It’s unclear if Democratic anger over Roe will sustain. And in part due to sleazy GOP court victories keeping their gerrymanders in place, Republicans can win the House even if they lose the national popular vote.

But Democrats should be feeling much better than only 24 hours ago. “The Democratic energy was huge,” Ryan said. “The Republican energy was very low.”

Loading...