Pat Ryan received a standing ovation Wednesday from House Democrats, the morning after being formally sworn in to Congress following his upset victory in a highly competitive special election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), dean of the state’s Democratic delegation, introduced Ryan at the first caucus meeting since those victories. Peltola had a scheduling conflict, so Ryan got the task of explaining to Democrats about the lessons learned.
It was about more than just defending abortion rights and delivering on many of the party’s promises, he told his new colleagues.
“This was about showing the fight, and I think people get that and that’s going to be a big part of what we’re going to see coming into November,” Ryan recalled in an interview later Wednesday in the Rayburn Room, just off the House floor.
His race, in a district that President Biden narrowly carried, more closely approximates what many endangered Democrats face, unlike Alaska’s unusual ranked-choice system.
“So what worked in Pat Ryan’s district is a playbook for anybody running in a swing district,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday, noting that 222 other districts have a more favorable lean for his party.
Most instant analysis credits Ryan’s campaign, which he launched days after a leaked draft showed the Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade, with capturing the lightning of that moment, especially after the late June ruling confirmed what was in that draft.
But, according to Ryan and other seasoned Democrats, his victory came because he anchored the race in demonstrating to voters how much he would fight for the cause.
In the days after the Supreme Court ruling, liberal activists grew despondent as they perceived Biden, Pelosi and other senior Democrats responding to the landmark decision with a lack of urgency.
On June 30, Ryan released an ad that began with stirring images of him in the Army, as a female narrator talked about how he fought “for our freedom.” The ad then made a hard pivot to Ryan today in a park.
“And freedom includes a woman’s right to choose,” he said. He then walked through a medical setting talking about government “trying to control women’s bodies. … That’s not the country I fought to defend.”
His message applies to other issues. For years or even decades, voters have told pollsters they side with the Democrats on lowering prescription drug costs, restricting gun rights, giving better health care to veterans, making the wealthy pay higher taxes, shifting toward green energy, and returning manufacturing jobs to American shores.
In the span of just seven weeks, Democrats passed legislation that they contend will do all of those things. But it’s not enough to just tout the benefits of these collective bills, on some higher intellectual level. Instead, Democrats have to talk about who they fought to get these bills passed: the National Rifle Association, PhRMA, big energy companies, big corporations.
“There’s the issues level, there’s the values level,” Ryan said in the interview. “And then there’s the [level of] ‘do I trust you to actually fight for those issues and values?’ ”
By signaling how they overcame powerful special interests to shepherd these proposals into law, Democrats can prove to voters that they are about more than just winning an argument.
“If it’s not authentic, it’s not going to work,” Ryan said.
To be sure, Ryan, 40, is a unique figure whose win will not be replicable for many Democrats. First, the special election was held on the same day as primaries in a state where more Democrats vote than Republicans, so his advisers could focus on driving up base turnout.
In addition, his family goes back five generations in the region, where the Ryans have been prominent leaders in the health-care industry for decades in Ulster County, home to more than 1 in 4 voters in his district.
His military background also gives him a personal story many candidates lack: The 2001 terrorist attacks happened during Ryan’s sophomore year at the U.S. Military Academy. He served two tours in Iraq and then spent time in Afghanistan as a private contractor.
Republicans believe that this race was an outlier and that November will turn heavily on inflation, which public polls show remains the top concern among voters. They think that was confirmed with Wednesday’s report showing still-high price hikes — just as Biden hosted Democrats for a victory party after their August legislative wins.
“He looks like a fool celebrating his reckless spending spree while prices continue to rise and the stock market is tanking,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Fox News.
Ryan doesn’t dismiss inflation. If candidates sidestep that painful economic issue and just run on protecting abortion rights, he says, those Democrats will fail.
“You can’t ask people to trust you on sort of a big defense of democracy and rights issue, if you’re not meeting them on the immediate pain that they’re feeling,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s second campaign ad showed him high up in a utility crane talking about how, as county executive, he took on “greedy corporations” and big utility companies for price gouging. He put as much focus on that populist theme as he did the first ad about fighting for abortion rights.
And those Democratic policy wins this summer gave him something to tout in the final two weeks of the race, a marked contrast to how party infighting last fall left Biden’s agenda languishing just before Democrats got stomped in off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
“I was able to campaign in the home stretch not just on defending fundamental rights, but to talk about real relief,” he said.
Ryan’s career could have ended four years ago when, as the DCCC favorite, he lost the primary to Antonio Delgado, who went on to flip this Hudson Valley seat from Republicans in November 2018.
Instead, in early 2019, he ran in another special election and won the county executive race and, once Delgado got appointed lieutenant governor in the spring, he jumped into the House race.
With a court-imposed map scrambling congressional lines, he could have easily passed on last month’s race. His home will be in a more Biden-friendly district next year, for which he’s now running in the November election.
But his first days of the special-election campaign showed the ground shift at rallies and protests the weekend after the Supreme Court draft leaked. And the campaign eschewed the language agitators on both sides of the issue have deployed for 50 years — choice, life, back-alley abortion, murder.
Having been raised Catholic, Ryan used other terms in his appeal. “Talking about what is a difficult, complicated, deeply personal issue in a way that I felt would be broadly unifying and trying to really remind people the shared American value of freedom,” he said.
Ultimately, however, he had to pass a credibility test that many Democrats have failed, convincing voters of the ability to pack a punch to back up one’s beliefs.
“Really to me, the takeaway is showing a fight, really saying we are going to stand up and fight and not triangulate and poll test and pull our punches,” Ryan said. “I think that can’t be underappreciated.”