early and often

Democrats Are Riding the Backlash to the End of Roe

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock

​​Democrats may somehow pull this off.

That’s the takeaway for the party’s midterm chances after a Democrat defeated a Republican in a special election for Congress in New York by campaigning hard on defending abortion rights. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in June ending a constitutional right to abortion, Democrats have tried to turn elections into referendums on the issue, and it appears to be working.

Only months ago, observers had written off the chances of Democrat Pat Ryan winning the swing 19th District that Barack Obama carried in 2012, followed by Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden four years later. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, he adjusted his campaign signs to make clear “choice is on the ballot” and started hammering the issue through Election Day. Not only did he defeat Republican Marc Molinaro, but he performed two points better than Biden did there in 2020, winning 52 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.

It’s the fourth time a Democrat has overperformed in special elections for Congress since Dobbs jolted the party’s voters into turning out. In another special election in New York’s 23rd District on Tuesday, Max Della Pia ran three points ahead of Biden despite losing to Republican Joseph Sempolinski. Democrats also stretched Biden’s margin in earlier contests in Nebraska and Minnesota. On top of that, an anti-abortion ballot measure earlier this month in deep-red Kansas lost by nearly 20 points.

Republicans have struggled to figure out how to answer Democratic attacks on abortion. For example, Molinaro’s response to Dobbs was that, in such a deep-blue state as New York, personal views on abortion didn’t quite matter. After all, he told the Washington Post, “I had thought, like most Americans, that this was settled.” It turns out he was wrong, at least politically.

The backlash to the end of Roe, combined with flagging headwinds, could potentially allow Democrats to defy the historic trend that the party controlling Congress and the presidency almost always loses seats in the midterms. Already, the party’s chances to hold or tighten its grip on the Senate appear to be decent after a crop of Donald Trump’s handpicked Republican candidates have struggled. The House, however, is widely considered to be the GOP’s to lose.

Still, the New York special election isn’t a perfect proxy for Democrats on the eve of a challenging midterm cycle for the party mired by high inflation and Biden’s low approval rating. What’s more, it occurred in late August in a congressional district that will not exist next year thanks to a byzantine redistricting process. (In fact, while both Ryan and Molinaro will be on the ballot again in November, they will not be facing each other: Ryan will be running in the 18th District, while Molinaro will still be running in the new 19th District.)

The vacancy they were running for was created when two-term incumbent Antonio Delgado resigned to become Kathy Hochul’s second lieutenant governor after her first choice, former state senator Brian Benjamin, was indicted on federal corruption charges. The position as Hochul’s No. 2 became especially appealing after New York’s original gerrymandered congressional maps were thrown out by the state’s highest court, creating the likelihood that at least one Democrat might be redistricted out of their seat.

Democrats Are Riding the Backlash to the End of Roe