The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New York’s special election and the GOP’s cul-de-sac of complacency

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and then-Democratic candidate Pat Ryan appear during a campaign rally on Aug. 22 in Kingston, N.Y. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
4 min

A Republican-controlled Supreme Court, a lawless Republican ex-president and an out-of-date Republican strategy just might win the Democrats the midterm elections.

Do not underestimate the seismic nature of Democrat Pat Ryan’s victory in a special election on Tuesday in an Upstate New York district that is as good a bellwether for the nation as you can find. It voted for Barack Obama, gave Donald Trump a 7-point advantage in 2016, and then backed Joe Biden by 1.5 points in 2020.

Ryan matched or slightly exceeded Biden’s margin, which is not supposed to happen in midterm contests, and he did so against a respectable Republican opponent in Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. No matter what they said the morning after, most Democratic strategists expected Ryan to lose. And Republicans and their allied groups put more money into the race.

Most important: Ryan’s win is not a one-off.

The best indicator that the winds truly have shifted against Republicans this summer might not have been Ryan’s victory, but the shrunken GOP margin in another New York special election, this one in the 23rd District in the western part of the state.

Trump carried the district by 11 points in 2020. On Tuesday, Republican Joseph Sempolinski prevailed, as expected, over Democrat Max Della Pia. But Sempolinski won by just 6.6 points. If we were in for a Republican wave this fall, the swing should have gone the other way.

Since the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats also gained ground over Trump’s 2020 showing in two other special House elections, in Nebraska and Minnesota, suggesting this is not a New York-only trend.

James Hohmann: In New York, Democrats chart a new, centrist course

“It appears that the U.S. Supreme Court did Democrats a significant political favor with the Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] decision,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said in an interview Wednesday morning. “There has clearly been an increase in Democratic enthusiasm since that decision, and that has translated into higher Democratic turnout in subsequent elections.

“Oh, the irony,” Ayres added, “that a Supreme Court with three new Trump appointees has ended up helping Democratic electoral fortunes.”

With Ryan making abortion rights central to his campaign, the effect was just as Ayres described: Turnout in the Hudson Valley’s Democratic counties was significantly higher than in the district’s Republican areas.

Writing about special elections requires caveats. Ryan was a strong candidate — and will remain so when he runs this fall in a slightly different, somewhat more Democratic district reshaped by new electoral maps. A West Point graduate and decorated combat veteran, Ryan converted his standing as Ulster county executive into a landslide on his home turf. He carried his county with 62 percent of the vote and a margin of more than 9,000 in a contest that he was leading overall by roughly 2,800 votes.

And a good Democratic showing this fall depends on the economy remaining steady. With gas prices coming down, the Republicans’ relentless focus on inflation is less compelling for now. The GOP will jump on any signs of a resurgence in the cost of living or an ebbing of economic growth as the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates.

But Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the New Democrat Network, who was arguing even before Dobbs that the Republican wave predictions were wrong, insists that “it is far more likely that things will get worse for the Republicans than better over the next eight to 10 weeks.”

“The story that’s going to dominate the news,” he said in an interview, “is about Trump’s illegality.” Rosenberg points to what he sees as an underappreciated crack in the Republican coalition: A significant share of its voters reject Trump — Ayres estimates this group at 10 percent to 15 percent of the GOP electorate. These anti-Trump Republicans could contribute to Democratic victories in 2022, as they did in 2018 and 2020.

One of the worst things that can happen to a political party is to see no need to devise a Plan B because it is so sure that its initial strategy will work. Whatever else this summer has shown, it suggests that all the Big Red Wave talk led Republicans into a cul-de-sac of complacency.

They were unprepared for the damage the Dobbs decision would do to their chances. They did not anticipate Democrats getting their legislative act together. They counted on prices to continue to rise. They thought, given his poor poll numbers up to now, that just mentioning President Biden’s name would be enough to drive voters their way. And they expected Democrats to remain dispirited, divided and demobilized.

Maybe the supposedly iron laws of midterm elections will kick in eventually. But it would be a stunning twist of history if the GOP’s relentless and successful campaign to seize control of the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for the party’s undoing.