“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.”
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.”
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.”
The 2022 midterms
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.”