Democrat Pat Ryan did not mince words in laying out his version of the stakes in Tuesday's New York state special congressional election, telling supporters that Republican attacks on abortion are contributing to an "existential" threat to U.S. democracy.

"This is not the country I fought to defend, when the government is telling women what to do with their bodies, and ripping away their rights," Ryan, an Army combat veteran, told several dozen Democratic supporters last week at a Woodstock home overlooking the Catskill Mountains about 100 miles (160 km) north of New York City.

The Aug. 23 race between Ryan and Republican Marc Molinaro, the executive of Dutchess County, is the first competitive House contest since the U.S. Supreme Court in June eliminated the nationwide right to abortion. It could offer a crucial test of whether Democrats can weaponize the issue in the Nov. 8 midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress.

New York's 19th Congressional District - left vacant when Democrat Antonio Delgado became the state's lieutenant governor - is one of the few bellwether districts in the country. Democrat Barack Obama won it in 2012, Republican Donald Trump carried it in 2016 and Democrat Joe Biden took it back in 2020.

Across the nation, Democratic candidates have seized on the Supreme Court ruling to argue that a Republican-controlled Congress would further endanger abortion rights and other freedoms.

There are some early signs the strategy is working, though Republicans remain favored to erase Democrats' slim House majority amid historic inflation and Biden's anemic approval ratings.

In Republican-dominated Kansas earlier this month, voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment to remove abortion protections. Two other special House elections in conservative districts - one in Nebraska and another in Minnesota - saw Republicans prevail by much narrower margins than expected.

Both parties are eyeing the New York race for clues as to how abortion or economic issues will mobilize voters in November. The sprawling district includes both liberal Hudson Valley towns such as Kingston and Woodstock, which have seen an influx of New York City residents in recent years, as well as rural areas farther west.


Ryan, the executive of Ulster County, centered his first campaign ad on abortion. He has portrayed the Supreme Court ruling as part of what he calls an increasingly far-right Republican agenda, including limits on voting rights, permissive gun laws and the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

"This has fundamentally re-energized - certainly in this district and this community - not just Democrats, but a wide swath of folks," Ryan said in an interview when asked about the abortion ruling. "I think the ground is literally shifting now."

Like many Republicans, Ryan's opponent Molinaro has downplayed abortion, instead focusing on high inflation and crime. At a recent debate, Molinaro, who opposes abortion, said he would not support federal efforts to institute a national ban, saying the decision is up to individual states.

In an interview, Molinaro dismissed Ryan's attacks on abortion, arguing that voters care more about pocketbook issues.

"These are families, and these are communities, that are working too hard and getting too little in return," he said ahead of a speech last week to the Rensselaer County Republicans in Troy, near the state capital of Albany. "That's what's on their minds."

The economy has been voters' biggest worry for the past year, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling, with 29% considering it their top concern as of last week. While that survey did not specifically ask about abortion, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in June found 62% of respondents were more likely to vote for candidates who support abortion rights.

Ryan called the notion that Democrats must choose between emphasizing individual rights or the economy a "false choice," adding that Republicans have consistently opposed Democratic bills that he said would lower costs for working families.

Both candidates have embraced the national implications of their race.

"This is our opportunity to send a clear message right here in New York 19 that this is not the direction that - not only we here but Americans - want our country to go," Ryan told the audience in Woodstock.

In Troy, Molinaro said, "On Aug. 23, we begin the march to winning back the House of Representatives on the road to a Republican majority."

The winner of Tuesday's contest will be immediately sworn in to fill the remaining few months of Delgado's term. But due to this year's redistricting, both Ryan and Molinaro plan to return to the ballot in November in different districts.

Ryan's home in Ulster County was redrawn into the 18th District, where he is favored to be the Democratic nominee. Molinaro has opted to run in the new 19th District, even though his home in Dutchess County was drawn into the 18th.