Notes on the State of Politics
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik
NY rating changes after impressive Democratic special election win; OH-SEN to Leans Republican.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball Senate rating change
Rating changes in New York following specials
Democrats turned in another pair of congressional special election overperformances last night, giving them an at least somewhat surprising victory in the closely-watched NY-19 special and a decent showing in the much sleepier NY-23 special, which Republicans held by a smaller margin than the GOP presidential showing in the district in 2020.
In NY-19, a classic swing district that Joe Biden won by about 1.5 points in 2020, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan (D) beat Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro (R) by a small margin. Some sites were reporting 51%-49% on Wednesday morning, others 52%-48%, and there probably are some scattered votes left to count, such as late-arriving mail votes.
This came despite Republican outside groups spending more in the race and polling that pointed to Molinaro.
Part of the reason that we (and others) thought Molinaro was better-positioned is that he is a fixture of local politics, serving for more than a decade as county executive in the district’s second-largest source of votes. Molinaro was also the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee; he carried this district by 11 points even as he lost a lopsided race to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Ryan, meanwhile, lost a primary for the Democratic nomination for this district in 2018 to Antonio Delgado (D), who went on to win it that year and resigned earlier this year to serve as lieutenant governor, a decision that triggered this special election. Ryan won his county executive office the following year.
Ryan ran heavily on the abortion issue, an increasing focus for Democrats in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that eliminated constitutional protections for abortion rights, while Molinaro ran more on other issues, like inflation.
Higher Democratic voter enthusiasm likely explains Ryan’s victory. Ryan won just 2 of the county’s 11 whole or partial counties, his home of Ulster County (Kingston), which is the district’s largest source of votes, as well as Columbia County (Hudson) to its northeast. But these are also the 2 most Democratic pieces of the district, and each county made up a bigger share of the districtwide vote in this special election than they did in the 2020 presidential election. Dutchess, Molinaro’s home, also was up in terms of its share of the districtwide vote. Molinaro carried Dutchess after it had voted for Biden in 2020, so he did well there, and his percentage margins in some of the other, redder parts of the district were better than Donald Trump’s in 2020. But the redder parts of the district generally saw their share of the districtwide vote go down from 2020 as turnout was better in the blue areas.
We saw this sort of dynamic in the recent MN-1 and NE-1 special elections, which Republicans won, but by smaller margins than Trump did in 2020. This also was apparent in the much sleepier (and lower-turnout, compared to NY-19) NY-23 special last night: Trump carried that district by 11 points, but the Republican margin was just 6.5 points as Democrats were powered by an outstanding performance in liberal Tompkins County (Ithaca). So we now have 4 congressional special elections since the Dobbs decision where the Democrats outran Biden; a 5th, the special election in Alaska, is still counting votes and uses a ranked-choice voting system that makes it harder to compare to other races, although the combined Republican share in the first round of voting there is better than Trump’s 2020 margin in the state.
As of Wednesday morning, there were roughly 130,000 votes counted in the NY-19 special. That’s less than half the total votes cast in the district in the 2018 general election. The Republican hope, and it’s not an unreasonable one, is that their voters will show up in more force compared to these lower-turnout specials. Part of the trade going on in the broader electorate is that Democrats have been picking up more white college graduates while losing more whites who do not have a 4-year degree to Republicans. Analyst Lakshya Jain wrote about this in the Crystal Ball last year. College graduates are generally higher-propensity voters, which may help Democrats in these lower-turnout special elections.
On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask — if the environment is good for Republicans, shouldn’t they be doing better in these special elections?
So there is an accumulating amount of evidence that Democrats are holding up better than expected in this midterm environment, likely in no small part because of the Dobbs decision. We now have these decent Democratic special election performances to consider, as well as House generic ballot polling that, collectively, no longer shows a Republican edge. This comes despite President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating — his numbers have been better lately, although he’s still in just the low 40s (as opposed to the high 30s).
We are making a couple of rating changes in New York following last night’s elections. Remember, the NY-19 that Ryan won will not exist following the November election, and both Ryan and Molinaro are running in substantially different districts.
Ryan, now an incumbent, is running in NY-18, a more compact district that voted for Biden by 8 points. We think Ryan’s impressive victory means that he should be a small favorite in a bluer district, so we’re moving NY-18 from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. The Republican nominee there will be state Assemblyman Colin Schmitt. Molinaro, meanwhile, is running in a reconfigured NY-19 that no longer includes his home of Dutchess County. It voted for Biden by 4.5 points. That district moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up; the Democratic nominee there is attorney Josh Riley.
More broadly, the special election results also seem to suggest that upstate New York is not in a state of revolt against House Democrats, as it was in 2010 and 2014, when the party turned in some brutal performances there. That’s important, as there are several competitive seats north of New York City, including the ones mentioned here.
The NY-19 special election was clearly the most notable race during last night’s slate of primary elections in Florida and New York, along with a few runoffs in Oklahoma. We don’t have any huge takeaways from the rest of the results — or, at least, anything that would necessitate a rating change. We do have another change, though, in a state that did not vote last night.
OH-SEN to Leans Republican
Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) and his political patron, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, both apparently have a fascination with the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. The name of a venture capital fund co-founded by Vance, Narya, is a reference to Lord of the Rings, as is the name of one co-founded by Thiel, Mithril.
So when Senate Leadership Fund, the outside Republican group connected to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), made it known last week that it was booking $28 million in advertising in Ohio to rescue Vance, we couldn’t help thinking about another Lord of the Rings reference — the Riders of Rohan, who rode to the rescue on a couple of momentous occasions in the second and third Lord of the Rings movies. (Although maybe the fantasy epic is just on our minds because there’s a new Lord of the Rings show starting soon — I’m sure, dear reader, that you’re shocked that the election-obsessed also sometimes likes fantasy epics.)
Anyway, and all joking aside, we have been waiting to see if Republicans had to mount a rescue mission for Vance. The Hillbilly Elegy author has been outraised, outspent, and outmaneuvered all summer by Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), who has been using his superior funding to both hammer Vance and bolster himself. Our understanding is that private polling in the race is good for Ryan and that an internal poll released several weeks ago by Ryan’s campaign showing him leading 48%-45% may actually understate his advantage compared to unreleased surveys on both sides. A couple of recently released public polls, one from Emerson College and the other from the GOP firm Trafalgar, showed Vance up 3 and 5 points respectively.
Our best guess continues to be that the eventual margin is likelier to be around what those recent public polls say, a modestly-sized Vance win. But this gigantic ad reservation by SLF has to be taken into account as well, a sign that top Republicans believe that they cannot just take this race for granted — that it will take real money to snap this race back to where Republicans believe it should be (and part of the reason that the ad buy is so large is that Ohio does not have a dominant media market, so ad buyers have to book in many markets to effectively cover the state).
We’re moving the race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. Our confidence in Vance winning remains, but we do not feel as strongly about it as we previously did. This may turn out to be another version of races like Alaska, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina last cycle, Senate contests in red-leaning states that Republicans ended up comfortably carrying but where SLF intervened with significant amounts of money (we rated those races as Leans Republican by the end of last cycle, though we never had any of them as Toss-ups). It’s also possible that Republicans will feel better about Ohio going down the stretch, in which case SLF doesn’t necessarily have to spend all the money it has booked. However, we also have to allow for the possibility that the internal polls we’ve heard about are correct and that Vance actually is in a good deal of trouble — and that he really does require a deus ex machina moment from the GOP’s version of the Riders of Rohan (or, if we were naming a venture capital fund after them, the Rohirrim).
As an aside, we didn’t mention the Ohio gubernatorial race in last week’s gubernatorial update, as we continue to rate it Safe Republican, and we didn’t touch on many Safe-rated races last week. There does appear to be a considerable polling difference between the Senate race and the gubernatorial race, where Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) is seeking a second term against former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D) — namely, Vance is doing considerably worse than DeWine. So it stands to reason that if we think Vance is still ultimately favored — and we do, despite today’s rating change — then DeWine remains well-positioned given his better standing compared to Vance. Democrats are hoping that the intense focus on abortion in the state — the story of a 10-year-old rape victim traveling from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion obviously was a huge one in Ohio and nationally — gives Whaley an opening to cut into DeWine’s crossover support, and Democrats released some polling showing DeWine up just 44%-43% on Whaley. Other polls, public and private, show DeWine doing significantly better. We’ll see if the race gets more clearly competitive down the stretch.
Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.
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