Tuesday, September 27

What the GOP can learn from the New York primary’s mixed results

In a previous column, I foresaw a Republican congressional red wave in this year’s elections, giving the GOP a strong House majority that could only be impeded by Donald Trump announcing his 2024 candidacy and diverting voters’ focus from ​President Biden’s failures to Trump’s misadventures. This ​past week’s GOP primary results in New York have caused certain modifications — negative and positive — in my estimate. 

The negative is that a GOP red wave is no longer a guarantee. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade and Biden’s legislative wins on spending and guns have energized the Democratic base and caught Republicans flat-footed. This Democratic energy was demonstrated in New York’s special election to fill the unexpired term of Antonio Delgado, who had resigned his congressional seat in the 19th District to become the state’s lieutenant governor. Though Delgado is a Democrat, his winning margins had been tight and gurus in both parties considered the 19th as the type of district that would switch to red in a wave year. 

The Republican candidate, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, was a proven vote-getter who had run a credible race as the GOP candidate for governor in 2018. His Democratic opponent, Pat Ryan, the county executive of neighboring Ulster County, was a respected campaigner, but the smart money was on Molinaro.

But the smart money was proven wrong as Ryan eked out a 2-point victory. Ryan had based his campaign almost entirely on abortion rights and that indeed was a factor in his win. An added factor was the fact that two Democratic primary contests in the district boosted Democratic turnout. I think what was almost as significant in this race — and what potentially has more staying power through Election Day than abortion as an issue — was the reemergence of Donald Trump. The FBI raid at his Mar-a-Lago home and his fierce, unrelenting defense and counterattack put Trump back on the front pages and at the center of political attention, pushing aside — at least temporarily — the Republican issues of crime, inflation and Biden’s incompetence.

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On the positive side: Solid, conservative Republican congressional candidates — incumbent Congressman Andrew Garbarino and Nick LaLota on Long Island, and Nick Langworthy upstate — beat back pro-Trump opponents in three hotly controlled primary races. They will be much more formidable and likely to have success in the general election than their vanquished opponents.

The Molinaro defeat should be a wake-up call to Republicans that they can’t just ride a wave to victory as they did in their massive victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014. 

The elements for achieving a working House majority are still there. Violent crime is climbing at a startling rate. Inflation is at a four-decade high. Joe Biden is still wildly unpopular, with favorable numbers in the low 40s. And the political reality is ​that the party controlling the White House​ historically loses seats in the off-years. I believe these issues will more than counterbalance abortion and be of more pressing importance to the majority of everyday Americans. 

The Trump factor, though, remains the political wild card. The more Donald Trump dominates the headlines, the more difficult it will be for Republicans to get their winning message across and to win the votes of independents and traditional mainstream Democrats. And if he launches the ultimate October surprise and announces his presidential candidacy, then truly all bets are off.

Peter King was the U.S. representative of New York’s 2nd and 3rd congressional districts for 28 years, including serving as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Follow him on Twitter @RepPeteKing.

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