The New York Special ‘Upset’

News: Commentary
by Jim Ellis  •  •  August 26, 2022   

Analyzing two special elections

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Reprinted with permission from Jim Ellis.



Pat Ryan (D) and Joe Sempolinski (R)

Democrats and many Washington political and media analysts are describing both the Pat Ryan (D) special election victory to hold the vacant N.Y.-19 seat on Tuesday and Republican Joe Sempolinski's relatively narrow win in the Republican 23rd special election as "Democratic upsets." They claim the results are a potential precursor to a better-than-expected result for the party in House races this autumn.

Let's first set the record straight. Thousands of mailed ballots are still being received, processed and recorded, and will be through Aug. 31. Therefore, we do not have final percentage totals and might not — according to the officials who are notoriously slow in counting the mailed, or absentee, ballots — until the election certification deadline of Sept. 9. Thus, it might be premature to declare a Democratic "victory," because, for example, their southwestern New York congressional candidate might lose by a slimmer margin than predicted. 

Even the latest published count, which will be the last until Aug. 31, decreased the total Ryan–Molinaro total to 51.1%–48.9%, down from the original four-point margin as posted with the then-current vote totals. The latest 23rd District special election totals now give Mr. Sempolinski a 53.3%–46.7% lead at the current tabulation point.

The strategists are claiming the abortion issue is energizing the Democratic voter base.

Democrats, in particular, are also pointing to their "success" in losing the Nebraska special election in late June by a tighter margin than we typically see from the Lincoln-anchored 1st Congressional District. In all of these instances, the strategists are claiming the abortion issue is energizing the Democratic voter base. 

Marc Molinaro

While the upstate 19th District special election was certainly a disappointment for the Republicans, there is much more beneath the surface to explain the preliminary outcome. Though three pre-election polls, and two of them from Democratic survey research firms, predicted a Republican victory for candidate Marc Molinaro of between three and eight percentage points, Democrat Ryan defied the polling.  

The voting history here, however, tells a different story than the spin we are seeing from the aforementioned analysts. Though the 538 data organization rates this seat as an "R+4," President Biden carried the district 52%–47%, and Democratic former-representative (and now New York lieutenant governor) Antonio Delgado, won two consecutive terms here with 54% and 51% of the vote in 2020 and 2018, respectively.  

Therefore, this N.Y.-19 district is far from a "slam dunk" Republican seat, and one where Democrats can obviously, and consistently, win. What should be troubling for Republicans, however, is their candidate probably lost because he basically followed the national party leadership direction. His ads, while well-produced, were heavy on blame and light on showing what he would do differently, other than being a "problem solver" and a "listener."

News Report: Republicans' Registration Resurgence

National polling indicates that the average voter believes the country is on the wrong track — 63% of respondents said so, according to a new YouGov online poll for the Economist newspaper — and understands that President Biden's agenda is at least partially responsible for the economic downturn and steep rise in inflation. What they are not hearing from Republican candidates is a plan to change the inflationary direction and one that points to renewed economic prosperity.  

Gov. Ron DeSantis

Conversely, on the same primary election day, though in another state, GOP governor Ron DeSantis had endorsed 30 candidates for local county school boards around Florida, all who agreed with an agenda that included suspending the teaching of critical race theory and expanded parental rights in developing school curriculums. The result was 25 of 30 campaign victories and flipping the school board majority in five counties, including Miami-Dade, Duval and Sarasota. Therefore, we see a distinct difference in results for these Republican candidates who campaigned with an agenda, as compared to the New York office seekers who did not. 

Furthermore, in the 23rd District special election, Mr. Sempolinski is only a caretaker candidate, meaning he will only serve until the beginning of next year and did not participate in the regular primary election. In that contest, it appears that New York Republican Party chairman Nick Langworthy defeated former gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino to advance into the regular general election.

Additionally, neither Mr. Sempolinski nor Democratic candidate Max Della Pia spent much money on their special election campaigns. According to the pre-primary Federal Election Commission financial disclosure report, Mr. Sempolinski spent just over $122,000 and Mr. Della Pia, $118,000+. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that enthusiasm for caretaker candidate Sempolinski, who was not exerting maximum effort, was less than what might have been if one of the regular election candidates had also been running in the special. 

National polling indicates that the average voter believes the country is on the wrong track.

If Republicans are to learn a lesson from the New York special election loss, it's perhaps that their message development needs further refining. This appears necessary if they are to drive enough casual voters to the polls and entice independent registrants to support their candidates come November, thus potentially increasing the size of what appears to be a future fledgling majority.

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