The Perfect Enemy | Will the Molinaro-Ryan special election predict the midterms?
August 11, 2022

Will the Molinaro-Ryan special election predict the midterms?

Will the Molinaro-Ryan special election predict the midterms?  Times Union

Read Time:10 Minute

HUDSON — When voters come to the polls to choose a successor to U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, they will be faced with an odd set of circumstances.

First, the election is on an unusual date: Aug. 23. Republicans will be filling out one ballot, while some Democrats will be filling out two. And the winner of the special election will only serve for five months — the remainder of Delgado’s term — before the next Congress is seated with representatives elected from newly drawn districts.

A strange confluence of circumstances met to create this unique election, in which Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican, is facing off against Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, a Democrat. But as the first federal election of 2022, it is being watched as a political bellwether for how Democrats and Republicans will fare in the November midterm elections.

In interviews laying out their goals if elected, the county executives took shots at each others’ campaigns and records — with Ryan calling Molinaro “pathetic and cowardly” on one issue  — and discussed abortion, inflation, the Second Amendment and immigration.

The fog of elections

Ryan is an Ulster County native who attended Kingston High School before joining the U.S. Army and fighting in Iraq. He later was involved in several information technology startups before being elected Ulster County executive in 2019. The previous year, he lost in the Democratic primary for the 19th Congressional District to Delgado — the man whose term he is now looking to complete. 

Molinaro was elected mayor of Tivoli at the age of 19, making him the youngest mayor in the U.S. at the time, and went on to serve in the state Assembly. He has been the Dutchess County executive for more than a decade, and was the Republican nominee for governor in 2018.

The special election is scheduled for the same day as the primary for the midterm election, so some voters will be voting in two elections. However, because redistricting kicks in for the midterms, some voters will find themselves in different districts for the primary and the special election — even though they are voting on both at the same time.

For instance, Democrats in both Poughkeepsie and Hudson will vote in the current 19th Congressional District for the special election, but in different districts for the primary on the same day. The new court-drawn congressional map puts Poughkeepsie in the new 18th District, while Hudson is in the new 19th.

Adding to the confusion: While Molinaro and Ryan are facing each other in the special election, both candidates are simultaneously running in the midterms — in different districts. Molinaro is running in the newly drawn 19th, which stretches all the way to Ithaca and no longer includes any part of Dutchess County. Ryan is a candidate in the 18th, which includes most of Dutchess and Ulster counties and all of Orange County.

Because Molinaro is not being challenged in the Republican primary, his name will only appear on the special election ballot on Aug. 23. In November, he will face either Jamie Cheney or Josh Riley, who are engaged in a primary battle to see who will win the Democratic nomination.

Ryan, who outraised Molinaro in the last quarter, faces opposition in the Democratic primary for the 18th, so voters in that district who are also eligible to vote in the special election will see his name on two different ballots.

Molinaro v. Ryan: Where they stand on the issues

Ryan disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to regulate abortion as they wish. About half have moved to drastically limit or ban abortion.

“We need leaders in Congress who are actually going to fight to restore this fundamental right to women,” he said. “This is the first time in a century-plus that a right is actually being taken away.”

Related: Roe v. Wade overturned: What it means for New York

Ryan supports a federal law that would codify the right to an abortion, and he says that the federal government should offer reproductive health services, including abortion, to veterans and their families. Current law only allows Veterans Affairs medical centers and Tricare to provide abortions in the case of rape or incest.

Molinaro said he is “personally pro-life,” but noted that abortions were not going anywhere in New York, where access has been codified into state law. But he said this moment should be used to discuss late-term abortion, which he believed most people thought “should be limited to a degree.”

Ryan has made abortion a critical issue of his campaign, producing a commercial on the issue and spending six figures to widely broadcast it. He has called the election “a referendum on Roe,” an assertion Molinaro takes issue with.

“Pat’s view is all Republicans want to try to establish a nationwide ban, and if he’s not elected, you won’t have access to abortion,” he said. “That is nonsense … He has made it perfectly clear that he thinks the Dobbs decision is the only way he can win.”

When asked about the top issue on the minds of district residents, Molinaro said it was the “cost of living.”

Americans have been feeling the strain of inflation for a year and a half now, with prices rising 9.1 percent in June from a year ago. Economists have debated its causes, with some citing COVID-19 federal stimulus packages that included direct payments and enhanced unemployment benefits.

Molinaro said part of that assistance was necessary, but “the federal government opened up the floodgate, and in doing so, diminished the value of the American dollar and forced too much (money) into too many places without the ability to manage it.”

He believes the U.S. should be extracting more natural gas for import and export, which he said could push down costs, but which would fly in the face of U.S. climate goals.

Ryan said there is a “myriad of reasons” for inflation and noted that foreign countries have not been spared. Canada and Mexico saw inflation of nearly 8 percent for the year ending in June, according to The Financial Times, and England saw inflation of 9.3 percent. But the main factor was “corporate greed,” Ryan said, pointing to record-breaking profits brought in by oil companies this spring.

The candidates also reacted in very different ways to another recent Supreme Court decision, concerning immigration. The court overturned a Trump-era policy, often called “Stay in Mexico,” that required those seeking asylum to remain in other countries as they wait for their cases to be adjudicated.

Molinaro supports the policy but added that he supports legal immigration, blaming “inefficient” immigration courts for gumming up paths to legal residency. Ryan said there needed to be a “sensible policy” that includes protecting immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — the DREAMers — and expanded worker visa programs.

On guns, the candidates toed their respective party lines. Ryan supports more restrictions, including a federal assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity magazines and universal background checks. He also had harsh words for what he called a lack of leadership from Molinaro in response to the recent Supreme Court decision overturning New York’s restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.

“Marc Molinaro has literally said nothing, which is pathetic and cowardly when we have kids getting gunned down, when we have people in grocery stores being gunned down, we have people in Fourth of July parades getting gunned down,” Ryan said. “That is the opposite of leadership and exactly what you’d expect from a career politician.”

When asked about a federal ban on high-capacity magazines, Molinaro called himself “a Second-Amendment supporter” and blamed the criminal justice system for a rise in gun violence. Defendants charged with gun crimes should not be able to plead down to non-gun charges, Molinaro said, but should “go to jail.” He also took aim at New York’s bail reform law and said the FBI “doesn’t do background checks well.”

Related: New York’s gun violence state of emergency, a year later

Who is running where again?

Molinaro has suggested, on Twitter and in comments to CBS 6, that Ryan is running in August’s special election in the 19th District, then abandoning it to run in the 18th District for the midterms. Ryan called that characterization “deceptive” and “dishonest.”

Technically, no one is running in the old 19th District in the midterms — that district, as currently drawn, will not exist after the special election, when redistricting kicks in. Parts of it will be in the new 18th District, parts in the new 19th, and parts in the new 20th.

The new district Ryan is running in for the midterm election includes his home in Gardiner, while the new district Molinaro is running in, the 19th, does not include Molinaro’s home in Dutchess County.

“His whole campaign has really been about dodging questions and deceiving voters, and this is another example,” Ryan said. “He is literally … abandoning Dutchess County, where is he still serving as county executive, for his own political benefit, and the hypocrisy of deceiving voters in this way is just what you’d expect.”

Both candidates were asked about the de facto leaders of their parties: President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“I think under Biden’s leadership, we’ve pulled out of a once-in-a-century pandemic (and) brought down record unemployment,” Ryan said, referring to the moderately high 6.4 percent unemployment rate that existed when Biden took office. He embraced Biden’s American Rescue Plan, as well as his trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, which he said Biden was able to get passed “quickly after years of promises from the previous president that fell flat.”

Molinaro said he agreed with many of Trump’s economic policies, mentioning positive takeaways from his presidency such as “economic growth and the focus on safety” — though murders skyrocketed nearly 30 percent during his last year in office — before pivoting to discuss his dissatisfaction with Biden’s policies.

Who will win?

Elections are often a referendum on how the two parties are doing on the national level. President Biden’s approval rating is just above 37 percent, according to an average of national polls maintained by RealClearPolitics. That is the lowest approval rating of a president since 2008, when George W. Bush was leaving office as the economy was in free fall and the Iraq war raged.

The current 19th Congressional District, created in 2012, is a true swing district. It has elected both Republican and Democratic representatives and has also swung both ways in presidential elections, voting for Barack Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

But whichever party has more adherents in the district, what will really matter on Aug. 23 is how many of them turn up to vote.

Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at SUNY New Paltz, thinks that turnout for the special election will be low, citing confusion over the election and the timing. “August is awful because of summer vacation.”

Early voting in New York would help more people get to the polls, Benjamin said, but “not in a determinate way.” In the wake of low voter turnout for the June state Assembly primary, some election officials have questioned whether extensive early voting is worth the cost.

Voters in obscure elections “tend to be more extreme in their views, intense in their views,” Benjamin said. “Centrist voters are unlikely to come out in low-turnout circumstances unless there’s voter mobilization that is pretty strong.”

This phenomenon can be seen every election cycle, as candidates tend to voice more extreme views on the primary trail, then tack toward the center for the general election.

The Columbia County Democratic Committee has been getting out the word on voting, according to its chairman, Sam Hodge. The committee has explained the differences between the special election, the primary and the midterm at all its events this summer, as well as sending out mailers describing the difference, hoping to turn out enough Democrats to elect Ryan.

Hodge called the special election “a bellwether” for how the recent Supreme Court decisions will affect turnout across the nation. Like Ryan, he believes the overturn of Roe could inspire a large Democratic turnout. “People are angry, they’re upset, they’re energized,” he said. “The entire county is going to be looking at this result.”

Molinaro said New York would continue to have a Democratic legislature after November, and the state needs the balance of an upstate Republican voice. He also pointed to his experience.

“I’ve done this for a long time,” he said. “I care deeply about what we do. There are very specific prescriptions for health care, for education, for farmland protection that need to be addressed. I like Pat, we get along well … but he’s talking in generalities.”