Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s becomingly increasingly clear that when abortion rights are on the ballot, abortion rights win. That’s one lesson, at least, from this week’s special election in a swing district of New York’s Hudson Valley, in which pro-choice Democrat Pat Ryan beat Republican Marc Molinaro.
The district is one where Joe Biden just barely squeaked out a win in 2020 – the kind of place where you’d expect voters to swing the other way in the midterms. And yet Ryan won with 52% of the vote, to Molinaro’s 48%, to finish out the term of former Congressman Antonio Delgado, who was elevated to New York’s Lieutenant Governor. (Ryan also won the Democratic primary for New York’s newly-drawn 18th congressional district).
I live in the district, and blue signs for both candidates speckle lawns across several counties. One difference, though, is that signs that read “Vote Paul Ryan for Congress” were often next to pink ones that said “CHOICE IS ON THE BALLOT.”
The issue of choice, perhaps coupled with a massive influx of New York City residents into the Catskills and the Hudson Valley over the past two years who have brought their liberal politics with them, seems to have made the difference for Ryan.
New York’s 19th Congressional district spans both sides of the Hudson River, beginning well north of the city’s daily commuter suburbs – it would take about an hour and a half to drive from the closest parts of the 19th into midtown Manhattan – and extending up nearly to Albany.
It has long been a fairly moderate district, and often winnable for Republicans, particularly when there is a Democrat holding the presidency. The largely White and older-than-average voters of the 19th have pinged back and forth between electing Republicans and Democrats for the presidency, often in line with the nation itself. A majority voted for Barack Obama twice, and then Donald Trump in 2016, followed by Biden in a closely-divided election in 2020.
And the district cobbles together more rural counties that are solidly red with two, Ulster and Columbia, that hold some of the region’s larger cities (“larger” is, of course, relative in this mostly rural area where even the cities are pretty tiny). But several cities in this region, small as they may be, have grown very popular among New York City expats, perhaps most notably Kingston and Woodstock in Ulster County and Hudson in Columbia County.
Walk down Warren Street in Hudson, and you’re more or less in Brooklyn North, with natural wine bars, single-origin coffee houses and art galleries adorned in rainbow flags. Drive across the river into the more rural reaches of Greene County and you may as well be in a red state, complete with Trump and “Let’s Go Brandon” signs, and a few that include Biden’s name – with an expletive in front of it.
Ryan made his campaign about fundamental values he believed would win even in this politically-mixed region: abortion rights, sensible gun policy and safeguarding democracy. Molinaro, by contrast, asked voters to send a message to Biden on inflation and crime, saying the election would be a “referendum” on the Biden presidency.
Voters did indeed send a message – but it wasn’t about inflation.
Early numbers suggest a disproportionate turnout from female voters. According to Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, women make up 52% of voters in NY-19, but cast 58% of early and absentee ballots. That higher female turnout suggests that abortion rights very well may have been a huge motivator in this race.
By most measures, Republicans should have had an advantage here. The opposition party typically has an edge in non-presidential election years. While this wasn’t exactly a midterm election, it was comparable in being a non-presidential-year vote – and midterm turnout tends to skew older, Whiter and conservative.
And because this election was held in late August, it really was about turnout: Who was paying attention and motivated to show up at a time when many people are out of town, and certainly when most Americans are not used to voting?
The answer seems to be those who cared that choice was on the ballot.
The Hudson Valley is not the first place voters have made their support of abortion rights clear. In Kansas, a reliably Republican state, voters rejected an effort to curtail abortion rights.
It is true that progressives are more pro-choice than conservatives. But 61% of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases, and say that the right to end a pregnancy should be between a woman and her doctor – not her legislator.
It was fairly telling during the campaign to see Ryan lean into the abortion issue, while Molinaro slunk away from it. Molinaro is anti-abortion, but in an effort to appeal to more moderate voters (upstate New York is often conservative, but it’s not the Bible Belt) he said he did not support a federal ban on the procedure, and that the decision should be left to individual states.
“The Supreme Court passed this issue back to the states,” Molinaro told the Washington Post. “The states have to act. This state has acted, and broad access is preserved here in New York.” In other words, New Yorkers, don’t worry about it.
New Yorkers, including Hudson Valley residents, are quite worried about abortion access – and so are many other Americans. Molinaro may say he would not have voted for a federal abortion ban, but plenty of other Republicans would.
A Republican majority in Congress may indeed mean that lawmakers would vote to scale back abortion rights. They would certainly attempt to block any effort to expand those rights at the federal level. In the upcoming midterms, choice is on the ballot, even if you’re voting in a liberal state or district.
Democrats have not been nearly aggressive enough in expanding and preserving abortion rights, and their long-standing assumption that abortion rights were safe is part of the reason we’re in this mess. But we should really pin the blame on aggressive right-wing attacks against abortion rights and access. Keeping Republicans out of power is the only way to protect what should be a universal right to make decisions about our own bodies.
Some Republicans seem to be beginning to grapple with the horrors they’ve set into motion. In South Carolina, Republican Rep. Neil Collins gave an emotional speech that suggests he is now second-guessing his support of an anti-abortion bill that, a doctor told him, put the life of one of her patients at risk during a miscarriage. But he’s in a minority. Most Republicans, unfortunately, are not shifting their positions on abortion in any meaningful way. In the meantime, the anti-abortion movement is only growing more aggressive and pushing for more extreme laws.
Stories about the real-life impact of abortion criminalization laws – of miscarrying women being sent home and told to wait for a life-threatening infection before they can get care, of ectopic pregnancies going untreated, of a woman being denied an abortion even though her fetus doesn’t have a skull, of a child rape victim the law would have forced into childbirth and motherhood – are showing many Americans, for the first time, what actually happens when you outlaw abortion. And those Americans are casting ballots now and in November.
Medicine and reproduction, it turns out, are complicated affairs, better left to doctors and experts rather than ideologically-driven politicians. Ideologues and anti-abortion politicians have responded to these stories largely with distraction – they falsely claimed that the story of a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim was a hoax, for example. Or they engage in denialism, claiming that laws that ban abortion don’t actually put women’s lives at risk and don’t do all of the awful things that women, doctors and lawyers are saying they do.
The public largely isn’t buying it. What the public is seeing, I hope, is that laws criminalizing abortion do much more than just outlaw ending an unwanted pregnancy (although that’s bad enough). The unfortunate truth is that a great many people believe they will never need abortion care, and simply don’t spend much time thinking about abortion.
Even though one in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime, the procedure isn’t something a lot of folks consider until they need it. Many women, too, believe that they would never have an abortion themselves – a belief that can shift with an unintended, badly-timed or health-compromising pregnancy.
But the vast majority of women in the US will have a baby at some point. The vast majority of men will father a child, hopefully with women they love and care about. It is increasingly clear that criminalizing abortion could have consequences for each and every one of them.
And I suspect that, more than anything else, is why we’re seeing voters take such a strong stand. “Keep your laws off my body” and “keep your government out of my uterus” are views that appeal to freedom-focused conservatives who chafe at unnecessary government interference. They certainly appeal to liberals and moderates who are horrified by these attacks on abortion rights and disgusted by how they’ve already hurt so many women and girls.
Democrats are increasingly united and running on abortion rights. Republicans in all but the most conservative pockets of the country are sidling away from the issue (they could, of course, adopt more popular positions on abortion rights, but that wouldn’t fly with their extremist base). Now it’s on voters to send a message: In November, choice is again on the ballot, and it’s on us to show just how much it matters.