The appeal began like so many others, with a note on the Ulster County executive’s personal history: two tours in Iraq fighting “for our families, for our freedom.”
But the spot then pivoted, the music speeding up.
“How can we be a free country?” Ryan asked, “if the government tries to control women’s bodies? That’s not the country I fought to defend.”
It also further upended the long-running assumption, among candidates and operatives across partisan lines, that an inexorable Republican “red wave” was coming to wipe out Democrats in battleground districts across the country, saddled by President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and angst over the economy.
“You are going to see a lot about individual freedom and the right of women to control their own bodies,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of House Majority PAC, the leading outside group charged with keeping Democrats in control of the chamber. “Voters care about abortion rights and voters care about individual freedom, and they don’t like the fact that Republicans want to rip that right away.”
“There’s definitely been a little bit of an uptick in Democratic enthusiasm, but that’s something we’ve been seeing for some time,” CLF president Dan Conston said. “I don’t think that that fundamentally changes anything in the House.”
Republicans are dismissing the need to change direction or alter their messaging and arguing that the specific conditions of the New York special election — in a state that also held closed primaries on the same day, shutting out independent voters — make it difficult to draw broader conclusions for about Republicans’ fall fate.
“Majorities are won in November, not August,” NRCC communications director Michael McAdams said. “We look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats’ failed one-party rule that’s left American families worse off.”
“Specials are entirely just base turnout. They give no indication where the middle is,” Conston said. “I don’t have serious cause for concern.”
An unapologetic message
“It was just so clear how deeply this hit people and how scared they were and how sad they were and how angry they were,” Ryan said. “We had to bring voice to that and put it under a larger umbrella and framework so that people who might not have had that personal experience could still understand it as a real assault on other Americans’ rights and understand that it would have consequences for them as well.”
That also meant, a Ryan campaign aide told CNN, encouraging their candidate talk about the issue in a tone and text that felt more authentic to him.
More concerning for Republicans, though, might be the apparent failure of their own tactics in trying to cast Ryan, in television ads, as a left-wing radical in league with violent anti-police protesters. One spot, which featured an image of the Democrat marching at a Black Lives Matter demonstration after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, gained less attention for its intended message than for the fact that Molinaro, too, had attended the peaceful rally.
Ryan said he believes the NRCC and Molinaro lost the plot in the final weeks of the race and, in a crucial misstep, bet too much on driving turnout among the Republican base in such a closely divided district.
“It was a panic move to lean into the really extreme ideology, to get attached at the hip with (New York Rep. Elise Stefanik), to go on Newsmax, to go on Breitbart,” Ryan said, referencing Molinaro’s recent rallies with Stefanik, a close Trump ally and the No. 3 House Republican, and his conservative media appearances. “It was panicked and it clearly backfired.”
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are delighting in the outcome of a race they had previously sought to downplay, being cautious with resources and publicly tempering expectations.
The DCCC was outspent 2-to-1 in the special election, but Maloney dismissed criticism that the group should have been more involved. (VoteVets, a Democratic group that supports veteran candidates, backed Ryan with more than $500,000.)
“We spent significantly in this race, but I’m proud that the Republicans wasted two or three times the money and still came up short. I’d say we got it just right here, because we had a strong candidate with the right message,” Maloney said.
“It’s not the only place it’s going to work.”