With the November general elections just a few months away, Split Ticket decided to launch a new article series called District Rundown. Editions of rundown will be released on a weekly basis until November 8th, focusing on the competitive districts that will be most important to determining House control.
Because it will be used to gauge the post-Dobbs environment, the upcoming special election in New York’s old 19th district is an excellent inaugural race for District Rundown to cover. By sheer presidential partisanship, the 19th will be the most competitive House seat to host a special election this cycle.
The 19th district stretches from just above Poughkeepsie in the south, to the upper reaches of the Hudson Valley in the west. Historically Republican-leaning, this seat has become competitive in recent years, with both Obama and Trump winning it.
Joe Biden narrowly flipped the 19th back to the Democrats in 2020, winning by just under 2 points. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado outperformed the topline by double digits, a sign of strength derived from his moderate brand as well as his opponent’s lack of resources. Given that Delgado is not on the congressional ballot this year, Biden’s performance is the best approximation of current partisanship of the 19th.
The seat’s Democratic core is bounded by the towns of Woodstock, New Paltz, Red Hook, and Rhinebeck. Biden carried this region 65-33, netting him just over 21,000 votes. Trump won the remainder of the district 52-46, a margin of 16,000 votes. To win the 19th, Democrats require large margins out of their aforementioned core.
An additional source of ballast for Democrats are the Columbia County towns of Canaan, Austerlitz, and Hillsdale. Each is a source of highly-educated white voters who vote similarly to their counterparts dwelling in the ultra-Democratic Berkshires just across the Massachusetts border.
Unlike a lot of small-town and rural areas in general, much of the 19th has actually gotten *more* Democratic from 2012 to 2020. The rural areas of this district, unlike those located in the state’s western half, have a Democratic floor of around 30-35%. This figure excludes parts of Schoharie, Delaware, and Montgomery counties.
If Republicans have a landslide win on Tuesday, it could be a sign that the Democratic floor in these rurals is collapsing. A good bellwether for such a downfall would be Republicans hitting 65% in Schoharie.
On the flipside, the Biden +5 Dutchess County portion of the seat could also be instructive. Despite its ostensibly-Democratic lean, Molinaro’s residual strength stands to pull the county toward the center. Either way, the fundamentals of this district do not strongly favor one party over the other under normal conditions.
Trigger & Previous Specials
Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 19th district was scheduled earlier this year after incumbent Democrat Antonio Delgado resigned to become Lieutenant Governor of the Empire State. Governor Kathy Hochul’s original pick, Brian Benjamin, was forced to leave office under a shroud of corruption. Delgado had been a durable incumbent, defeating Republican Congressman John Faso in 2018 and outrunning Joe Biden significantly to attain a landslide reelection two years later. *This election will also be coterminous with a special in New York’s redder 23rd district.*
Two post-Dobbs special elections, in Nebraska and Minnesota, saw Republicans hold open 1st districts but underperform expectations given fundamentals. Despite sharing partisanships of roughly Trump +10, Democrats came up short by only single digits in both districts. It is unwise to extrapolate too much from special elections given differences in turnout and coalition-structing between them and November, but they are not useless.
Democratic overperformances in the last two special elections, coupled with a visible shift in the 538 generic ballot average, suggest that *at the moment* the national environment is probably neutral or slightly favorable to Republicans. That picture could very well change closer to election day as undecided voters make up their minds, though, so the 19th district should go a long way in confirming whether or not the good Democratic performances witnessed in other recent special elections are merely noise.
The Republican candidate in the 19th district is Marc Molinaro, a former assemblyman and Dutchess County Executive since 2012. He first rose to national GOP prominence in 2018 when he challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo. While unsuccessful, his campaign resonated with upstate voters who were prepared to split their tickets against an incumbent whom they detested.
Because he had achieved electoral success in a county that had not voted Republican for President since the Bush years, the GOP naturally considered Molinaro a top recruit against freshman Democrat Antonio Delgado in 2020. He declined to run at the time, but threw his hat in the ring this year expecting a more favorable national environment.
On the Democratic side, the nominee is Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan. Ryan initially ran for the 19th in 2018, narrowly losing a primary to Delgado amid a crowded field. This cycle saw him secure the special election nomination with no intraparty opposition, realizing a dream that might end up being less fruitful than it could have been in a blue year.
Only four 19th district polls have been publicly-available since June, but all of them have showed Molinaro leading Ryan by margins ranging from modest to comfortable. In each survey, the proportion of undecided voters has hovered at roughly 10% and margins of error have likewise stayed near +/- 4%. Both figures reinforce just how hard it can be to poll individual House districts, even when election day is right around the corner.
It is important to note that all of the polls in the race up to this point have been internals conducted for either campaign. Two, run by Democrats, showed Molinaro leading Ryan by 3 points at different stages in the race. Conventional wisdom suggests that any candidate losing his or her own internal is in a weak position going into a general election. In that sense, the polling average would suggest a fortuitous night for the GOP.
Both Molinaro and Ryan have raised roughly $1.5 million as of the August FEC filings, but the Republican has a distinct cash-on-hand advantage over his rival that amounts to almost $300,000. Having a fuller warchest at the end of campaign season is often enough to make the difference between a frontrunner and an underdog in close districts. In this case, Molinaro has simply had more expendable cash to hit the airwaves and advertise to voters. Fundraising deficits are far from prohibitive, but they nonetheless tend to be disadvantageous.
As was expounded upon in the previous District section, the 19th is a hub of ticket-splitting Hudson Valley voters. The 2012 iteration of the seat that will be used for tomorrow’s special backed Biden by 1.5 points two years ago, but gave Molinaro himself an 11 point margin of victory in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Much of the Republican’s upstate success that cycle arguably had more to do with Governor Cuomo’s unpopularity than Molinaro’s strengths, but his capabilities as a candidate should not be discounted.
Given a national environment that is currently somewhere between neutral and Republican-leaning, it appears that the district fundamentals are helping Molinaro more than Ryan. This claim holds up despite the fact that Democrats have posted overperformances in the last two post-Dobbs special elections.
Given Molinaro’s advantages in terms of polling, fundraising, and district fundamentals, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which he would not be a favorite against Ryan. To understand what this special election will possibly mean for the national environment, if anything at all, Split Ticket has crafted a series of benchmarks for interpreting the results.
Starting with the unlikeliest of scenarios, it is quite clear that a Democratic victory of any kind on Tuesday would be a devastating sign for the GOP. It would indicate a neutral environment at the bare minimum, and, depending on the margin, perhaps even a Democratic one.
Such an outcome would potentially be the third Democratic special election overperformance since Nebraska’s 1st, though the returns in the simultaneous special in New York’s 23rd would also have to be considered before making conclusions.
The most likely non-catastrophic case for the GOP would be a Molinaro victory by less than 3 points. That would constitute a rightward shift from 2020 presidential partisanship of anywhere from +1.5 to +4.5 points. Such a change would still be underwhelming because previously-discussed fundamentals in the 19th district suggest that Republicans should win by more. This type of GOP victory would probably be suggestive of a Republican ripple rather than a wave.
Most probable among these possible outcomes would be a Molinaro victory of 3 points or more. Given the fact that Ryan trailed in two Democratic internals by that margin, it is reasonable to assume that Molinaro could win by more once undecided voters are removed from the equation.
Expectations & Implications
Split Ticket has rated the special election in New York’s 19th district LEANS REPUBLICAN since Delgado’s resignation was announced. All of the evidence available to our team as of this writing supports that original classification. A comfortable Republican victory would certainly please the GOP, and could lead certain pundits to claim that the last two specials in Nebraska and Minnesota are not worth analyzing when it comes to handicapping the November environment.
Such a claim might have some truth to it, as specials are highly variable, but it would nonetheless be wise to avoid major extrapolations and simply add the 19th’s result, regardless of its nature, to the aggregate. Split Ticket believes that all specials have worthwhile takeaways, but it does not consider individual outcomes omnipotent. At the moment, a mildly-Republican environment still seems like the most probable set of conditions for November.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or email@example.com