CHATHAM, N.Y. — In New York’s Hudson Valley, ubiquitous lawn signs underscore how an upcoming special election for an open House seat has taken on outsize implications.
“Choice Is on the Ballot,” one sign says, the white lettering cast over a background of pink and blue, and a smaller line beneath it for the Democratic candidate, Pat Ryan.
The Aug. 23 contest for the seesaw district, which routinely wavers between Democratic and Republican control, had initially been cast as a potential bellwether of President Biden’s stature among swing voters.
But the race — among the first House special elections in a swing district since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — has quickly morphed into a closely watched test case of how important abortion rights may be in a tossup general election.
Mr. Ryan, a combat veteran who serves as executive of Ulster County, is in favor of protecting abortion access nationwide. Marc Molinaro, the Republican executive of Dutchess County, is not.
Like many other Democratic congressional candidates around the country, Mr. Ryan is trying to make the threat to abortion rights a central issue in the campaign. He cites the rollbacks of reproductive rights, voting rights and access to health care as urgent indicators.
“It is an existential moment for our democracy,” he said.
Mr. Molinaro has similarly adopted a Republican Party strategy — avoid talking about abortion whenever possible — that is beginning to take hold, especially after voters in Kansas, a Republican state, overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have removed abortion rights from the state’s constitution.
Polling shows that 65 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases — a number that has grown in the past decade. But whether that belief is enough to persuade voters to stick with Democrats despite high gas prices and inflation remains to be seen — and is a question that reflects the party’s larger struggle to energize a socially and economically diverse base in the upcoming midterms.
The 19th Congressional District in New York — last represented by Antonio Delgado, a Democrat who gave up his seat this spring to serve as lieutenant governor — is among the nation’s dwindling number of true swing districts. Combining both the liberal cities of Kingston and Hudson with more conservative rural areas of Greene and Delaware Counties, the district went for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald J. Trump in 2016 before returning narrowly to the Democrats in 2020.
When Mr. Delgado won in 2018 and again in 2020, some saw the impact of well-heeled city-dwellers, many of whom vote Democrat, who had begun to migrate into the Hudson Valley. That trend has only increased during the pandemic, revitalizing small towns but also exacerbating the area’s housing crisis and contributing to local tensions.
Mr. Molinaro has tried to tailor his campaign to middle- and working-class concerns, speaking often about crime and economic woes, a struggle he says he knows first hand as a child growing up on food stamps. He blames Democratic policies in Albany and Washington for the inflation and high consumer prices that he says are hurting upstate New Yorkers, urging voters to send a message to “limousine liberals.”
On social issues, Mr. Molinaro mostly toes the party line, saying he opposes bans on assault rifles and is personally opposed to abortion. But where he once said that he considered the constitutional right to abortion to be settled law, he now says that he believes the decision belongs with states and he would vote against a federal law ensuring abortion access nationwide. Similarly, he says that he would oppose a nationwide ban.
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The position has put him on the defensive, particularly given the weight that Mr. Ryan has given the issue in campaign literature and advertising. Indeed, Mr. Molinaro rarely speaks about it except when pressed, as in a recent debate, when he invoked rare late-term abortions as a reason to restrict abortion rights.
“Like most people of this district, I just think there ought to be some thoughtful limitations,” he said. Later, he prodded Mr. Ryan: “Are you OK, Pat, with no limitations? None? You think that even to the second before delivery, you are OK with abortion?”
Mr. Ryan frames his campaign as an outgrowth of the call to service that led him to the military, speaking often about responsibility to community and the promise that government should be a force for good.
Like Mr. Molinaro, he agrees that the economy is not working for many in the working class, but blames large corporations for taking more than their share. Calling out entrenched politicians on both sides of the aisle, he envisions a “people-centered” economy bolstered by investments in child care, housing and infrastructure.
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The contest has drawn notice from partisan backers. In the most recent three-month reporting period, Mr. Ryan raised over a million dollars. Mr. Molinaro has received an assist from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which plans to spend more than $700,000 on TV ads in this race, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact.
Mr. Molinaro also boasts $1 million cash on hand and high name recognition locally, first as a teenage mayor of the village of Tivoli and later as a 2018 candidate for governor.
At the Greene County Youth Fair in late July, would-be voters differed about the extent to which the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling would influence their ballot choices.
Alea Fanelli, a registered Republican, said she viewed herself as an independent. And while she disapproves of Democratic prison reforms that she says have made her husband’s job as a corrections officer more dangerous, she said she is still likely to vote for Mr. Ryan, because of his support for abortion rights.
The mother of a daughter, she said her views were shaped by the need to “think about our kids, for the future.” If abortion is outlawed, she said, “Then what, we’re back to back rooms, alleys, men kicking us in the stomach?”
Other attendees at the youth fair, who spoke over the bleating of prize goats, suggested that the abortion rights issue was overblown. Many Republican-leaning voters said that though they believed abortion ought to be available in certain instances, it was not a motivating issue for them.
Some disagreed with the premise that the procedure was under threat, noting that it would remain available in New York State. Others said that Republicans had no intention of banning the procedure outright — despite efforts to impose bans in nearly a dozen states.
Roger Maben, a member of the Greene County Republican Committee, has “mixed feelings” about abortion, but says that’s beside the point. “There’s an old saying in elections: It’s the economy stupid!” he said, adding: “Abortion doesn’t matter.”
Adding to the intrigue is the chaos of redistricting, which has muddled timelines and scrambled political races across the state, perhaps none more so than here.
The winner of the race will serve out the four-month remainder of Mr. Delgado’s term. There will be a separate election in November for the newly redrawn 19th District — whose geographic contours stretch west to take in Tompkins and Tioga Counties but lose much of the Hudson Valley.
Regardless of whether Mr. Molinaro wins the special election in August, he has committed to running for the new 19th District seat in November. Mr. Ryan, however, has entered a three-way Democratic primary for a newly redrawn 18th District, which comprises Dutchess and Orange counties as well as Ulster County, where he lives.
So by January, if Mr. Molinaro wins in the new 19th and Mr. Ryan wins in the new 18th, each could each hold seats in Congress — though it is also possible that both will find themselves out of a job. For now though, the two rivals are focusing on the special election in a moment both say is critical.
Given all of the upheaval the district has seen in recent years, local issues could also play a role in the race.
Abi Mesick, a Democratic town board member from Chatham, is supporting Mr. Ryan. But she said she feared that her party has not done enough to reach out to working-class Hudson Valley residents whose communities have been changed by an influx of second homeowners and city dwellers.
She worried that they would be drawn to Mr. Molinaro’s charisma. “I bet you three-quarters of them are going to vote for him, even if there’s a couple of things they don’t like,” she said.
“Because they don’t like these guys,” she added, casting a glance at a group of older women dressed in head-to-toe linen. “These guys don’t represent them.”