New York Special Elections: 19th and 23rd Districts

by Jacob Rubashkin July 21, 2022 · 12:08 PM EDT

The midterms are less than four months away. But before then, voters in four districts will have to go to the polls to fill vacancies caused by death and resignation. And the results in Alaska, Minnesota, and New York, could provide some data on how the political environment has shifted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

In New York, resignations have left upstate New York two representatives short. Voters in the 19th and 23rd Districts will fill those two vacancies on August 23 — the same day as New York’s delayed congressional primary elections.

New York’s 19th District
Two-term Rep. Antonio Delgado left Congress this spring to become New York’s Lieutenant Governor, after Gov. Kathy Hochul’s first pick for the job resigned following his indictment on federal bribery charges. Now, both parties are battling for Delgado’s vacant seat in an August 23 special election.

Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who was his party’s nominee for governor in 2018, is running against Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan.

Joe Biden would have carried the district by just 1.5 points, 49.7-48.2 percent. In the current political environment, with a deeply unpopular Democratic president, this district will be much more difficult for Democrats to win than in 2020, when Delgado won a 12-point victory over an underfunded GOP challenger. 

Molinaro, 46, is a solid candidate for Republicans. He declined to run for this seat last cycle, much to the dismay of party strategists hoping to recruit him after he carried the district by double-digits, 53-42 percent, in the 2018 gubernatorial race (even as Delgado ousted GOP Rep. John Faso, 51-46 percent).

A county executive since 2012, Molinaro has been running for Congress since September of 2021, well before Delgado left the Hill. The Republican raised $1.4 million through June 30, 2022, when he reported $1 million cash on hand.

Ryan, 40, is a West Point graduate who ran for this seat in 2018 but narrowly lost the Democratic primary to Delgado, 22-18 percent. He won a special election to the county executive position in April 2019 and then a full term that fall.

Ryan entered the special election in mid-May and raised $1 million through June 30, when he reported $575,000 in the bank.

Molinaro has demonstrated some hometown appeal in the district before. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, he ran strongest among statewide GOP candidates overall, but especially in this district. He won by 11 points despite losing by 23 points statewide, a gap of 34 points, while U.S. Senate nominee Chele Farley did just 22 points better in the 19th than statewide, and attorney general nominee Keith Wofford did just 25 points better than statewide. 

But federal races are different than gubernatorial contests. And unlike the Queens-raised Andrew Cuomo, Ryan has deep Hudson Valley roots.

Molinaro has received some outside support from the Kevin McCarthy-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund, which has spent $100,000 on digital ads in the district. 

But Ryan is the only candidate advertising on TV, with a $305,000 buy on local cable. The 30-second spot, produced by Mark Putnam, begins with a few biographical notes but pivots quickly to abortion rights. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the Ryan campaign sees abortion as its strongest line of attack against Molinaro, who is pro-life.

Molinaro is running a campaign similar to GOP efforts across the county, emphasizing rising costs and violent crime.

But he also has a more unique angle to use against Ryan, one brought about by the Empire State’s convoluted redistricting process.

Both Ulster County and the bulk of Dutchess County are currently in the 19th District. But in the new court-drawn maps, both shift into the new 18th District.

Molinaro is staying in the 19th District in the fall regular election. But Ryan will be running in the 18th, which is now open because incumbent Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney is himself switching to the 17th District. 

Molinaro has taken to calling Ryan’s special election bid his “shadow campaign” for the 18th district, while emphasizing that Molinaro is sticking by the 19th. Ryan, for his part, counters that Molinaro is the one who is leaving his home county to run in an easier district in the fall, while Ryan is just moving with his home.

Special elections are always difficult to handicap, and the slapdash scheduling of the concurrent congressional primaries — which were separated from the gubernatorial and Senate primaries and delayed a month by court order — could depress turnout. Some GOP strategists are concerned that turnout among Republican voters will be especially low, because there are not competitive primaries on the ballot in any parts of the old district.

While the political environment clearly favors Republicans, the one special election after the end of Roe, in Nebraska’s 1st District, gave Democrats some hope that their voters are reenergized heading into the fall. GOP nominee Mike Flood won by just 6 points despite Trump carrying the district by 11 points in 2020, and turnout was relatively high in the suburban parts of the district, which Democrats attributed to the Supreme Court decision.

The fundamentals of the district and the overall environment favor Molinaro. But Ryan looks like he has momentum heading into the last month of the campaign. Toss-up.

New York’s 23rd District
Southern Tier Rep. Tom Reed resigned unexpectedly earlier this year to take a job with a DC lobbying firm. While Reed had already said he wouldn’t run for re-election following a claim of sexual harassment, his early exit triggered a special election to fill out the remainder of his term.

Republican Joe Sempolinski will face Democrat Max Della Pia in the August 23 special election. Sempolinski is the chairman of the Steuben County Republican Party, and Della Pia is the chairman of the Tioga County Democratic Party. Della Pia, an Air Force veteran, previously sought this seat in 2018 — he lost the Democratic primary that year by 230 votes to Tracy Mitrano, who then lost to Reed.

The two party nominees were selected by the various county parties that comprise the district, rather than by traditional primaries.

Della Pia is also running in the regular election for the redrawn 23rd District, and is unopposed in the Democratic primary taking place on the same day as the special election. 

Sempolinksi, however, is not seeking the GOP nomination for a full term. Initially, 27th District GOP Rep. Chris Jacobs was slated to run in the 23rd after his current district was eliminated and his home base in the Buffalo suburbs and exurbs was absorbed into this district. But after a mass shooting in Buffalo prompted Jacobs to endorse an assault weapons ban, the congressman came under intense pressure from his own party to leave Congress, and decided he would not stand for re-election. That created an open seat opportunity.

Developer/2010 gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino and state GOP party chairman Nick Langworthy are running in the concurrent GOP primary for the newly-drawn district, which is even more Republican after shedding liberal Tompkins County.

The special election will be held under the 23rd’s old lines, which have been in place for the past decade. Trump carried the district by 11 points, 54-43 percent; the largely rural district has moved significantly toward Republicans over the past decade, after it voted for Barack Obama by 1 point in 2008, and Mitt Romney by 1 point in 2012.

Neither candidate had much money in the bank on June 30. Sempolinski had $173,000 and Della Pia had $89,000.  

The partisan lean of the district already makes Sempolinski the clear favorite. And the competitive GOP primary for the new 23rd District, in which both candidates have spent on TV in the Buffalo and Elmira media markets, could boost turnout among Republicans, to Sempolinski’s advantage. Solid Republican.