SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — Democrats have notched win after win on abortion since the Dobbs decision — but not in New York, where Republicans navigated the topic just fine in 2022 en route to majority-making House upsets.
Josh Riley, a Democratic candidate in the 19th District, thinks the tide will turn in 2024. He’s seeking a rematch against Rep. Marc Molinaro after losing by less than 5,000 votes last year, and is confident voters are more tuned into the issue.
“People understand that the Dobbs decision — it’s about abortion, and it’s about reproductive justice, but it’s also fundamentally about freedom and liberty in this country,” Riley told Semafor.
New York Democrats agree. They’re hoping to capitalize on that sentiment and boost turnout by scheduling a voter referendum in 2024 on an Equal Rights Amendment that would further enshrine abortion rights in state law.
But Molinaro and his fellow Republicans are confident they have the winning formula already with a message that emphasizes public safety and the economy. In the midterms, they zeroed in on revisions to New York’s bail reform system and gas and grocery inflation and found an eager audience among swing voters and a depressed Democratic base that failed to counter them. While crime has declined in New York City, the state’s struggle to house incoming migrants has also become a hot topic, and one that is increasingly affecting suburban districts.
“My neighbors know that public safety is a concern,” Molinaro told Semafor. “They’ve seen law enforcement and police undermined.”
With Republicans planning a massive investment in blue state races to counter Democrats’ efforts to take back their seats, New York could be a critical test for abortion rights supporters in a series of races that could potentially determine whether Roe v. Wade is codified into federal law in some form.
There’s no question that abortion has been a motivating force for Democrats, especially in off-year elections and ballot measures. But there’s also reason to think Republicans in New York have some unique advantages.
For one, abortion access is under less imminent threat in New York at the state level than in places like Michigan, Arizona, or Wisconsin. Republicans are well-acquainted with their state’s preferences on the issue already and are more used to making adjustments in response. Lee Zeldin, the state’s 2022 gubernatorial nominee, voted for anti-abortion measures in Congress. But when it came time to lead the GOP ticket, he ran ads promising not to touch the state’s abortion laws — and saying he couldn’t even if he wanted to.
Molinaro may be a freshman in Congress, but he began his political career at 18, first on the Board of Trustees in the Village of Tivoli and then later as the mayor of Tivoli. He publicly opposes “late-term abortion,” but he also knows his constituents’ politics and is trying to plant a flag as a kind of anti-anti-abortion moderate willing to entertain their concerns.
“I care deeply about the difficult choices that women and their families have to make, Molinaro said. “I said that I will not support a national ban. Nor do I believe Congress should incur on the rights of states.”
Since arriving in Congress, Molinaro has openly pushed back on a Texas judge’s decision to overturn a decades-old approval of the abortion pill. He also was partly responsible for delaying an Agriculture Appropriations bill because it contained a measure to roll back a COVID-era subsidy for contraceptives and their delivery.
Republicans, however, have added controversial amendments to some of Congress’ must-pass bills, which Molinaro called “frustrating” at times. Last month, he voted to pass the annual NDAA, which included a GOP-backed amendment to prevent the Pentagon from reimbursing servicewomen for travel to obtain an abortion.
“Would I prefer that some of these amendments don’t come to the floor? Sure I would,” he said. “But I also know that I’ve got to vote the way that I think people of this district in upstate New York want me to vote.”
Democrats are hoping to use votes like these to take on Molinaro’s moderate brand directly and link him and other House Republicans to further-right members — especially one scandal-plagued New York representative who many state Republicans have publicly disowned.
“The reality is he’s voting last time I checked 90% of the time with Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos,” Riley told me.
Room for Disagreement
Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y. was a rare bright spot for state Democrats in the 2022 cycle, winning a close August special election against Molinaro himself with an abortion-focused message, and said “Democrats have a lot to be hopeful about” after seeing how the issue has played out so far.
“Americans stand up when freedom is at risk,” Ryan told Semafor in a statement. “We’ve seen it in our special election, in Alaska, in Kansas, and just this week in Ohio. Republicans continue to push these extreme proposals and have been rejected repeatedly.”
The district lines in Ryan’s 2022 special election against Molinaro were changed by a court decision, moving Molinaro into his contest against Riley in the new 19th District just months later. New York Democrats are hopeful that the map might be redrawn again in their favor by 2024, or at least give them more time to prepare their candidates for tough races in comparison to 2022’s chaotic reshuffling.