(The Hill) — Democrats are coming off a special election win in New York with a fresh burst of energy and a sense that the 2022 midterm elections might not deliver the kind of devastating blow to their House majority that they have long feared.
Pat Ryan, a Democratic county executive, narrowly defeated Republican Marc Molinaro on Tuesday in the race for a vacant House seat in New York’s Hudson Valley that was largely seen as a bellwether for the political climate heading into the fall.
Ryan’s win was, in and of itself, a massive boon for House Democrats eager to stave off an electoral thrashing in November. But it was also only the latest in a series of better-than-expected special election performances for the party and the latest sign that the political tides may be shifting in Democrats’ favor.
“It’s a friendly reminder that, every time the narrative counts us out, we know how to change it,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said. “You can’t always predict what defines an election six or seven months out. And the very things that Republicans and the media have considered to define the election, haven’t defined this election.”
“I do think we have a hell of a chance of maintaining this majority,” he added.
To be sure, special elections aren’t necessarily the best indicators for how the general elections will shake out.
Turnout tends to be lower and as political strategists and operatives on both sides of the aisle like to point out, special elections are just that: special. Michael McAdams, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), noted as much on Wednesday.
“Majorities are won in November not August,” McAdams said in a statement. “We look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats’ failed one-party rule that’s left American families worse off.”
But Democrats are nonetheless buoyed as they begin the sprint to the general election, pointing to perhaps the most powerful driving force behind their recent special election performances: the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Since then, Democrats have sought to rally voters around the idea that a Republican-controlled Congress could further erode protections for reproductive rights, a strategy that has so far shown signs of paying off.
In each of the four special elections decided since the Supreme Court made its ruling – one in Nebraska, one in Minnesota and two in New York – Democrats have outpaced President Biden’s 2020 performance, even in the three they lost. In Alaska, a state former President Trump carried by 10 points in 2020, Democrat Mary Peltola leads the field in the special election for the at-large House seat, though results are still being tabulated.
The issue of abortion rights proved particularly pivotal in the special election in New York’s 19th District on Tuesday. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, Ryan centered his campaign around reproductive rights, casting the special election as a chance for voters to register their outrage at efforts to restrict abortion access.
Molinaro, meanwhile, focused more on issues like crime and inflation. While he has said that he opposes a federal ban on abortions, Ryan still hammered him over his belief that the issue should be decided by the states.
Chris Taylor, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), cast Ryan’s victory as the latest sign that voters are poised to reject Republicans this fall over the GOP’s approach to abortion rights, proclaiming that “House Republicans’ dream of a red wave has gone up in smoke.”
“For the fourth time this summer, voters rejected MAGA Republicans’ extreme attempt to rip away women’s freedoms by backing Democrats because they know we’ll protect their freedoms,” Taylor said. “Every day between now and Election Day we’ll make sure voters know Democrats are the party of freedom and MAGA Republicans are the party of extremism.”
One national Republican strategist, however, attributed Molinaro’s loss in the Hudson Valley district on Tuesday in part to low turnout among independents, who are unaccustomed to voting in primary elections in New York because of the state’s partisan nominating contests.
“Our fear, which turned out to be true, was that independents do not turn out on Primary Day in New York because New York has a closed primary system,” the strategist said. “What you saw was just partisan turnout. The general election in this district is going to look very different than last night’s special election.”
And Democrats are still facing strong headwinds in their bid to hold their House majority.
The party in power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections, and Biden’s approval ratings have lingered underwater for the past year. What’s more, the GOP needs to gain just five seats to recapture control of the lower chamber and the party is poised to pick up a handful of those seats thanks to redistricting alone.
Even Seawright, the DCCC adviser, acknowledged that there are circumstances outside of Democrats’ control and that the party needs “to be able to respond” to the unexpected, especially in the final months before the general elections.
Still, there are signs that Democrats’ recent burst of momentum isn’t just limited to special elections. Over the past month, the party has regained a narrow lead on the generic ballot – a poll question asking voters which party they would rather see control the House – according to the data website FiveThirtyEight.
And on Wednesday, two election handicappers, the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, shifted the November election in New York’s 18th District, where Ryan will seek his first full term in Congress, in Democrats’ direction.
Even some Republicans concede that the political environment appears to be improving for Democrats.
“The Dems have had a pretty good run lately,” one GOP strategist familiar with House races said. “It’s getting harder to say that it’s just a fluke. Do I think that they’re going to win the House? No, not at all. But also, what’s happening now doesn’t exactly say ‘red wave’ to me.”