It was supposed to be a sobering reminder of the Democrats’ midterm prospects, with polls in New York’s 19th Congressional District showing Republican Marc Molinaro leading Democrat Pat Ryan by between three and eight percentage points in a special election to replace Rep. Anthony Delgado, who left his seat to serve as Lt. Governor of New York.
Instead, with over 95 percent of the votes in, Ryan defeated his opponent 51.9 to 48.1, or around four points, even outperforming how Biden did in the same district in 2020 by nearly two and a half points.
Here are some big takeaways from the upset on Tuesday.
Dobbs has changed the game
There have been four special House races since the Dobbs decision came down in June, and each has swung sharply to the Democrats.
According to figures posted by Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, which Trump won by 11 points, the Republican only won it by five, meaning a six points shift; in Minnesota’s 1st, a similar six point shift occurred; in New York’s 23rd, there was a four point shift.
While in those elections the shift wasn’t enough to notch a win for the Democrats, in New York’s 19th enthusiasm and turnout among Democratic and independent voters was enough to deliver a surprise victory.
Most observers are correctly crediting pro-choice voters for the shift, and the race itself was something of a referendum on abortion rights. After Dobbs came down, Ryan went all-in on the abortion question, unveiling new campaign signs, styled white on pink, that said:
“CHOICE IS ON THE BALLOT.”
Ryan also leaned heavily into the issue in his ads against Molinaro, who personally opposes abortion and voted against abortion rights as a state legislator. Ryan called the rollback of reproductive rights part of the “existential threat to our democracy” with his very first ad asking:
“How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?”
Molinaro tried hard to avoid the question of abortion altogether, saying that after Dobbs it was now a state issue—and thus a nonissue in abortion rights friendly New York. He also insisted that he opposes a national ban on abortion and wants the question left to the states.
Molinaro instead chose to focus on the economy and crime and even promised that his winning wouldn’t change the balance of power in the House. The Republican Party spent heavily in the district to win it, too. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund surged $2.25 million late into the campaign with anti-Ryan and pro-Molinaro ads.
It wasn’t enough.
The widely expected red wave, built on anger around high gas and food prices and low Biden approval numbers, crashed against a new and growing blue wall of voters seeking to defend the right of bodily autonomy and abortion.
Since the Kansas referendum shocker, Democratic turnout, particularly among younger female voters, has played a significant factor in elections; in New York’s 19th, it was enough to be decisive.
Polls are failing to predict the effect of Dobbs
It may be time to question the underlying assumptions of many polls, especially given what we saw in Kansas and the four House races since. In Kansas, a poll taken in July post-Dobbs showed the “yes” votes on the amendment to remove abortion protections from the state constitution was beating the “no” votes by a margin of 47 to 43.
That same poll, however, held some hidden messages that many failed to notice.
In particular, young people aged 18 to 34 were 75 percent opposed to the amendment, and people aged 35 to 44 were 52 percent opposed. Meanwhile, as I wrote about earlier, voter registration among women following Dobbs was through the roof in Kansas. The measure went down to defeat by a whopping 59 to 41 difference.
In NY-19, the polls were also way off. One internal Democratic poll, taken just week before the election, showed their candidate trailing the Republican by three points. And another internal Democratic poll, released on the day of the election, showed him trailing by eight. (That pollster is now being dragged fairly publicly.)
Digging into the numbers, the data apparently was heavily weighted toward older voters, with respondents over the age of 50 comprising 73 percent of respondents.
While the poll no doubt adjusted for this sample difference, its baseline assumptions around turnout were likely a massive underweight for women and younger voters. Indeed, if these voters wind up turning out in much higher numbers than expected everywhere, a lot of poll assumptions are going to be thrown out of whack by it.
The shift means Democrats might still hold the House
NY-19 is a perennial bellwether district and is one of the last remaining true “swing districts” in the country, having voted for Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016, and Biden in 2020. The fact that the Democrat outperformed Biden in a special election in 2022 has oddsmakers taking note.
After all, as one DCCC member pointed out, there are 222 House seats better than NY-19 by Biden performance (i.e. greater than 1.5 percent), and that was enough for the Democrats to win a majority in the House in 2020.
Rather than looking at the polls, which appear to be missing the young and female enthusiasm factor, we can simply look at actual results. In each of the four House races held since Dobbs, the Democrats outperformed Biden’s numbers in 2020 by between two and a half to six percent.
Because the numbers in 2020 themselves were enough for a slim Democratic House majority, that trend would mean a House majority for the Democrats were this spread to hold. In an extreme exception to the midterm rules, it could even mean a pick-up in seats for the Democrats were the energy and enthusiasm to maintain or grow.
Turnout and enthusiasm are everything
A special election, even one held on primary day, isn’t normally likely to gather much steam or see big numbers. But in NY-19, that proved incorrect. Early voting numbers as of August 22nd were a big clue.
In more populated and suburban Ulster and Dutchess counties, Democrats comprised 70.1 percent of the early votes, non-affiliated were at 14.5 percent and GOP was at just 14.3 percent, meaning independent and “other” voters actually outpaced the GOP in early turnout.
Turnout for NY-19 was a surprisingly high 37 percent, a few points higher even than the average of other special election races. Digging down into the numbers, turnout was between 40 and 45 percent in the populated, Democratic strongholds of Ulster and Columbia county as well as the swing county of Dutchess. But it was down below 30 percent in Republican rural counties.
Notably, the win for Democrats took place in a state where abortion is still safe and legal, and where new voter registrations among women and men have been about at parity. In states where the right to abortion is threatened more fundamentally, such as Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania, the enthusiasm gap could be much wider between Democrats and Republicans come November 8.
One thing is certain from these string of race results: Abortion rights are a proven, galvanzing, and motivating message for Democratic and independent voters that could counter the negative effects of inflation and other favored Republican themes like crime and immigration.
The warning bells are now sounding among GOP party leaders; it will be up to the Democratic Party and its candidates to channel voter outrage into electoral wins. Importantly, voters must come to understand that the best way to protect abortion rights is for Democrats to hold the House and gain two more Democrat seats in the Senate.
Democrats could then limit or eliminate the filibuster to enact laws to protect all manner of fundamental freedoms, from abortion to voting rights.
As the election grows nearer, Democrats need to ensure that message is clear and understood by voters and keep abortion rights front and center, because to everyone’s surprise, the prospect of that very positive outcome for Democrats actually becoming a reality just got a big boost.