Abortion access defines key New York congressional races

On the night before he was first elected to Congress in August 2022, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, flanked by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and other campaign supporters, was delivering the final speech of his campaign.

His address was very different than what he might have imagined it would be a few months earlier.

Ryan — a Democrat who graduated from West Point and served two tours of duty in Iraq — stood in front of a wall-sized American flag in a room often used for weddings and corporate dinners and talked mostly about abortion rights.  

He spoke of “fundamental freedoms and rights being ripped away,” adding “control over (women’s) lives and bodies have been ripped away.”  

New York Congressman Pat Ryan.

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Some of the biggest threats in our country’s history are coming from right here at home,” he warned.

Ryan’s special election victory in a closely divided U.S. House district in the Hudson Valley region of New York was the first competitive federal election in the U.S. after the June 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.   

He pivoted his TV ad campaign and his stump speech to champion his opposition to the court’s ruling and swept enough votes to defeat a formidable Republican challenger and win the seat.

In 2024, as Ryan tries to win another term in his politically purple region of New York, he’s doubling down on abortion access.

In an interview from his congressional district, in the mountains near the Hudson River in Gardiner, New York, Ryan told CBS News that women’s reproductive rights “will be in my stump speech. In my paid TV ads. It’ll be in the campaign mailings. It’ll be part of the message when I knock on doors and make calls.”   

“The entire frame and orientation of our campaign is that we expand freedoms,” he said. Control of the House hinges on New York. In a nation with few truly moderate, swing congressional districts, several of the remaining competitive races are in the Empire State. The campaigns are deeply funded and equipped for battle.  

And this particular political battleground appears to be centered on women’s reproductive rights.

Both parties are ready to fight over it.  

A “branding problem”

Republican party campaign leaders have urged their House incumbents and challengers not to surrender the issue of abortion and reproductive rights to Democrats.   

This approach comes after the end of Roe v. Wade posed a massive political challenge for the GOP during the 2022 midterms. House Republicans struggled to find a cohesive way to respond to the end of decades of federal abortion protections, and hopes of a red wave that cycle were dashed as the GOP won only a narrow majority in what had been viewed before the Supreme Court’s decision as a favorable environment for the party.  

Republicans are now attempting to avoid making the same mistake again.

Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican who now chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and is helping lead an effort to win seats in New York, told CBS News, “Republicans have a ‘branding problem’ on abortion, not a policy problem. Most voters think Republicans’ position is a very narrow, extreme position, which it is not. There is no one Republican position. A lot of candidates have a lot of different positions, from states’ rights to reasonable limits.” 

“I’m just telling my candidates and members, ‘Talk about what you believe. Don’t let them define you.'”  

A Republican Party official told CBS News, the national campaign committee circulated a memo earlier this year to advise candidates on how best to argue and prepare to campaign on the issue. 

New York Republicans already had plans to do so. 

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a first-term Republican from Long Island, told CBS News, “I bucked my own party to stop legislation that would have curtailed access to mifepristone, and I have made clear that I will reject any push to pass a nationwide abortion ban at the federal level.”

D’Esposito and Rep. Marc Molinaro, a first-term Republican from the Catskills were the first Republican House members to co-sponsor a Democrat’s proposal to codify federal protections for in vitro fertilization.   

The legislation became a rallying point for Democrats after a controversial court ruling by a state court in Alabama briefly interrupted IVF services for women in the state. Molinaro and D’Esposito made headlines in their hometown media by supporting the bill.

Molinaro told CBS News, “I heard it from my constituents.  I know personally the value and the importance of making sure IVF is available to anyone who wishes to grow their family. I think it’s a very special thing.” 

A third New York Republican in the House, Rep. Mike Lawler of Westchester County, officially joined as a co-sponsor of the bill earlier this month. 

Alison Esposito, a Republican seeking to defeat Rep. Ryan in November, has splashed a lengthy statement about abortion prominently on her campaign website. Esposito, a veteran New York Police Department commander from Orange County, told CBS News, “Like most Americans, I believe in reasonable exceptions like rape, incest, and the life of the mother.”        

“I believe in empowering women and babies and supporting them at all stages of pregnancy to have access to more options in terms of financial resources, healthcare resources, and emotional support,” Esposito said.

“Talking out of Both Sides of His Mouth” 

Several New York Democrats acknowledged to CBS News that Republicans are more aggressively counterpunching on the issue of abortion in this election cycle. Ryan accused Esposito and Republicans of “muddying the waters” on their positions on women’s reproductive rights.   

“Americans will see through the B.S.,” he said.

Laura Gillen, a Democrat who served as a town supervisor in Hempstead, New York,  is trying to oust D’Esposito, in part by challenging his abortion positions.  

“He tried talking out of both sides of his mouth when he said he wouldn’t support a national abortion ban,” Gillen said of D’Esposito.  He has a record since he’s gotten into office — in support of federal regulations restricting women’s access to women’s reproductive health care.” 

Democrats are bullish on their strategy of emphasizing abortions rights and already utilized it in February, defeating a Republican and electing Democrat Tom Suozzi in a special House election on Long Island. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads targeting Suozzi’s Republican challenger, Mazi Pilip, arguing Pilip was “part of the extreme wing of the Republican Party that wants to take away your rights and benefits,” one ad said. “They’d ban abortion even in New York, even in cases of rape or incest.”

In an April 5 memo, the DCCC wrote about the prospect of ballot initiatives codifying abortion rights and recent court rulings severely limiting abortion rights in Arizona and Florida. 

“This further guarantees that reproductive freedom will remain a driving issue for voters this November, putting vulnerable House Republicans and GOP candidates on the hook for their anti-abortion and anti-freedom positions,” the memo said. “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will ensure that House Republicans’ efforts to ban abortion nationwide are top of mind as voters head to the polls to protect their reproductive rights.”

Democrat Josh Riley, an attorney and former congressional aide who is challenging  Molinaro in the House district representing the southern tier of New York and Catskills, pressed the issue of abortion rights early in his campaign.  

“Right now, people want to restore Roe v. Wade and they want pro-choice candidates,” Riley said. “And that’s what I am.”     

Riley said, “I try to meet voters where they are, knocking on doors.  I’m hearing over and over again that voters are terrified about what this Republican Congress is doing to our freedoms.”

Federal campaign finance filings through the end of March show millions of dollars already being raised by candidates in New York congressional races this cycle that could help decide who will control the House. Lawler has outraised his best-funded likely Democratic challenger, while D’Esposito has a cash advantage over the leading Democratic fundraiser in his race. But Riley has both a sizable fundraising and cash-on-hand advantage over incumbent Republican Molinaro. 

Spending from outside groups will also be key in these races. 

House Majority PAC, a leading campaign spender for Democrats, is already set to put at least $18 million towards New York congressional races closer, according to data from AdImpact. 

Molinaro, a longtime Dutchess County executive who won his seat in 2022, is trying to fend off the challenge by Riley by pitching himself as a “pragmatist” who has helped bridge the divides of a uniquely toxic House this year. He has emphasized his position in support of federal protections for IVF as a streak of bipartisanship and representative of his House district, which sprawls from the distant New York City suburbs, north to Binghamton.  

Molinaro told CBS News, “At a time when we are a divided nation — and too many issues here in Washington divide Republicans and Democrats — there is consensus on IVF. And I hope by taking the lead and showing that it’s important to establish this protection, others will follow.”

Molinaro has experienced the impact of the potent politics over the issue of women’s reproductive rights. He was the Republican who lost the special election to Ryan during that heated special election in August 2022.

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