Many were shocked to see Democrats win a bellwether congressional race in upstate New York. Not only did they manage to hold the narrow Biden-voting NY-19, but they managed to do it with fundamentals that should have caused them to underperform in the seat. On top of that, Democrats did surprisingly well in another special election in a very GOP-friendly seat stretching from the Buffalo exurbs down to the Pennsylvania-New York border.
Not only is Biden’s approval rating pegged to be in the high-30s to low-40s, but the fundamentals in the race itself showed to favor Republicans. Republicans managed to nab one of the strongest candidates, Marc Molinaro, to be their nominee, the seat has many blue-collar voters which is a demographic trending Republican, and there is much displeasure with the state government in upstate. Despite all that, Democrat Pat Ryan managed to carry the seat by a larger margin than Joe Biden carried the seat (2.2% vs. 1.5%), largely propelled by the large turnout of Democrats in his home county.
This result has both parties scrambling, as NY-19 is an example of a seat Republicans would likely need for a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. The seat is also a microcosm of a region of the country which will see many marquee races.
The State of Upstate
Upstate New York has a large connotation for being the conservative bastion of New York, but there is roughly equal representation for upstate in the House (six Republicans and five Democrats). Out of those six Republican Congressman, John Katko represents a Biden+9 seat anchored by Syracuse, and his retirement means Democrats have a good chance to carry the slightly less Democratic revision in November.
There is a host of competitive elections in the region in November and will have a role in defining the House majority, and the NY-19 special is not a great sign for Republican prospects in the region.
New York’s 19th congressional district is a large district that encompasses a mixture of blue-collar voters who are lumped together with many white college-educated voters from the two liberal bastions in the seat (Ulster County and Columbia County). Another large bastion of Democratic voters in the seat are college students at SUNY (State University of New York) New Paltz, however, the school was not in session during the special election. The district is roughly 85% white and there are no areas with a large concentration of non-white voters. The district has been represented by both Democrats and Republicans, most recently by current Democratic Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, who vacated the seat to take his current post. The race was a clash between two County Executives from opposite sides of the Hudson River. Pat Ryan was the County Executive of Ulster County, while Marc Molinaro is the longtime popular County Executive of swingy Dutchess County (Molinaro was also the 2018 Republican nominee for Governor).
Some polls showed Molinaro up by 8%, and even Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) polling showed Molinaro narrowly ahead. Most outlets classified it as a Tossup, but others ranked it as lean Republican.
It was an upset, but the results of the NY-19 special election showed several trends could be seen. Many Republicans have cited that there were two Democratic congressional primaries in the new lines (which significantly overlap with the current NY-19). While there were two Democratic primaries, neither primary was remotely competitive and the special election received much more attention than the primaries.
The bloc of liberal college-educated voters proved decisive for Ryan, where preliminary data suggests turnout among this base was very high. Just Ulster County alone canceled out all the votes netted out of counties Molinaro won. Ryan also managed to keep the margins semi-competitive in the other counties but trailed Biden’s margin in some. Ryan also managed to only narrowly lose Dutchess County by a little over three percentage points, which is a good feat considering Molinaro won by nearly 20 percentage points in his last County Executive election and the portion of Dutchess in the seat is slightly redder than the county as a whole.
While Ryan, won there was some good news for Republicans as well. Molinaro scored some good margins in many counties that are considered competitive. Straddled next to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, Sullivan County was won by Delgado by over six points in 2020. Two years later, it would see Molinaro carry it by over 14%. Up north in Otsego County, Delgado went from winning by roughly 12% in 2020 to Molinaro carrying it by over 3%. While the margins are drastic, Delgado was a formidable incumbent and his opponent did not have nearly the same popularity Molinaro shared. Contrasting with the 2020 Presidential vote, Ryan only did a few points worse than Biden in Sullivan and narrowly overperformed Biden in Otsego.
The seat is interesting because it shares similar traits with many seats in the country, especially in upstate New York.
The Upstate Calculus
Once the Democratic drawn-map “Hochulmander” was overruled as a gerrymander by the state’s highest court, there were fears Republicans could net up to six seats from the new map, but in the end, only two seats became automatically favored to be held by GOP lawmakers (both incumbents). Furthermore, these two seats were downstate, while in upstate the map allotted more competitive seats. This has led to a mad dash for Republicans to wrestle these tossup seats away from the Democrats, while Democrats try to flip Katko’s vacant Syracuse-based seat.
Democrats get a large boost from the solidly blue cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany, however, they also get large boosts from many scattered areas. Upstate New York is home to a large bulk of SUNY schools that create blue islands in red seas. There is also a large share of liberal retirees from downstate, medium-sized blue cities, and blue-trending suburbs. This is why there are now three marquee contests upstate in 2022, with possibly more getting competitive later in the decade.
All three districts have colleges (which will be in session), medium-sized blue cities, and sparsely populated blue-collar areas. Out of the three competitive seats, two have a Democratic lean while the new configuration of the 19th is GOP-leaning by a single point when going off of partisan voter index (PV)
The State of Play
NY-18 (Clinton+1, Biden+8)
The first district and the middle seat in the range of competitiveness is the 18th. While some may argue it isn’t upstate, it is north of the tristate area. The district makes a diagonal cut to take in most of Dutchess County, including the solid-blue population hubs of Poughkeepsie. The district then takes in the blue-collar, swingy Orange County as well as a majority of Ulster. The Democratic nominee is Pat Ryan while Assemblyman Colin Schmitt will represent the GOP. The seat is mostly from the old 18th that was represented by DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (who chose to run in the 17th where his Cold Spring home is located).
Republicans are hoping they can win, but it would require Trump 2016 numbers in Orange and Dutchess and/or peeling off voters from Ryan’s home county that he won in a landslide in the special election. Schmitt hails from Orange County and flipped a Dem-held assembly seat in 2018. This could help him in Orange but he still needs to gain votes elsewhere to flip the seat. With the new seat being more Dem-leaning and having an arguably weaker opponent than Molinaro Ryan should be the narrow favorite. However, the seat could flip, especially if the GOP gains ground between now and election day. Elections Daily rates the race as Leans Democratic, while the Decision Desk HQ model rates it as a Tossup
NY-19 (Trump+2, Biden+5)
Just north of the 18th is the seat that will likely be the closest in New York. The seat looks like a line that stretches from Ithaca to the exurbs of Albany. The seat is bluer than the current iteration of the 19th, going to Biden by around 3% more than the 19th. The Republican nominee is Molinaro (whose residency and home county of Dutchess is in the 18th) while Democrats nominated Binghamton attorney Josh Riley.
With changing seats, Molinaro loses one of his greatest strengths in his home county appeal. However many of the other counties where he did well in the special are still in the seat. Riley, on the other hand, will have a home county advantage in Broome, which cast a sizable share of the vote in the Democratic primary in the seat (Molinaro was unopposed). In the general election, Broome will likely have more influence as the largest county vote share in the primary was Tompkins County (Ithaca), which is overwhelmingly blue.
The seat will be a close contest, but most (including Elections Daily) give Democrats a slight advantage, and the NY-19 special does not provide good news for Republicans. Elections Daily rates the race as Leans Democratic, while the Decision Desk HQ model rates it as a Toss Up.
NY-22 (Clinton+2, Biden+8)
The final of the three contests is the open 22nd, which is a small district comprised of Syracuse, Utica, and the city’s suburbs. The seat was made a hare redder in redistricting, however, the seat is still Dem-leaning. John Katko’s bipartisan style was popular in the seat and helped him peel off moderate voters who otherwise voted for Democratic candidates. When he voted to impeach Donald Trump in 2021, it led to a conservative outpour of support for unseating him. Whether this was a major factor or not, Katko would announce his retirement. Now after a large upset in the GOP primary, Brandon Williams will face Navy Captain Francis Conole in the general.
Williams was considered the weaker candidate in the primary as his opponent Steve Wells had near-unanimous backing from local and national Republican officials and committees. Both Elections Daily and the Decision Desk HQ model regard this race as a Toss Up.
All three of these contests could go either way and likely all be won within 5%. While Democrats enjoy mild advantages in the 18th and 22nd, the 19th could go either way. If Democrats were to win all three it would likely mean Republicans would not have a large House majority. If Republicans win at least one of the three it likely means Republicans have won House control with a decent cushion. The fundamentals narrowly favor Democrats in the three.