Pat Ryan’s Blueprint for Democrats: While Standing for Abortion, Fight Corporate Power

Tuesday’s primaries in New York were a mixed bag for big money in politics, but Ryan’s special election victory proved populist economics compatible with liberal priorities.

KINGSTON, NY - AUG. 13, 2022: Democratic candidate Pat Ryan, right, speaks during a rally in Kingston, New York on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Mr. Ryan, the Ulster County executive, is running in a special election for the 19th Congressional District that became vacant when Antonio Delgado, second from left, accepted the position of New York State Lieutenant Governor.  (Photo by Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic candidate Pat Ryan, right, speaks during a rally in Kingston, N.Y., on Aug. 13, 2022. Photo: Cindy Schultz/The Washington Post via Getty Images

To win Tuesday’s special election in New York — a Democratic victory the press is hailing as a bellwether — Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan spent heavily on an ad that went hard at corporate power and price gouging. “I approved this message because big corporations have too much power. It’s time our families had more,” Ryan said Thursday.

In its coverage of the race and Ryan’s victory, the media has focused almost exclusively, though not entirely, on his decision to make abortion rights central to his campaign. The strategy was considered a risk in the special election to replace Democratic former Rep. Antonio Delgado, who vacated his seat in May to run for New York’s lieutenant governor, as the Hudson Valley district was projected to lean slightly Republican this cycle. And without question, the risk paid off: Ryan’s unapologetic response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade played a major role in his successful campaign, but no assessment of it is complete without a look at the anti-monopoly, populist argument he made with a major TV ad buy.

“We centered the concept of freedom,” Ryan told the Washington Post, linking his populist economics and abortion rights advocacy under a single theme. He ended up beating Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro 51-49.

Elsewhere in the mainstream press, the New York Times took the unusual measure last week, even by its standards, of endorsing a self-funded candidate in the primary for New York’s 10th Congressional District. Millionaire Levi Strauss heir Dan Goldman earned the paper’s accolade after spending millions of his own money on the race, while the Times editorial board ignored two experienced, progressive women of color.

On Tuesday night, one of those women, New York State Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, came only 2 percent shy of beating Goldman, who received about a quarter of the total vote in the district. The slim difference led many observers to extol the virtues of ranked-choice voting, which likely would have united progressive votes against Goldman. Even though Niou appears poised to lose the count, she still has the opportunity to challenge Goldman in November on the Working Families Party ballot line, though the party has refrained from commenting on the option.

After Goldman declared victory Tuesday night, the super PAC for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee announced that it had funded a super PAC that ran ads attacking Niou.

Despite Goldman’s AIPAC-backed success, Niou’s close margin represented one of a handful of light rebukes in New York and Florida to the invasion of big money into politics. In a less-watched race in New York’s 3rd Congressional District on Long Island, Josh Lafazan was dealt a defeat by progressive Democratic National Committee member Robert Zimmerman. Lafazan’s loss is a blow to corporate front group No Labels, which endorsed Lafazan alongside its most enthusiastic beneficiary in Congress, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who led a handful of moderate House members last year to undermine the passage of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

In Florida’s 10th Congressional District, gun control activist Maxwell Alejandro Frost bested a crowded field of strong candidates, including former U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson and Corrine Brown, as well as state Sen. Randolph Bracy, who benefitted from the support of several outside spenders, including the AIPAC-aligned corporate interest group Urban Empowerment Action PAC, and earned the endorsement of DMFI. Frost, who is likely to become the first Gen Z member of Congress, was backed by a host of national progressive organizations and prominent left-wing politicians.

And in the Manhattan-based 12th District, liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler ousted fellow Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who has questioned whether Biden should run for reelection and undermined efforts to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.

Nadler’s win was a departure from one prominent trend in this year’s primary elections. Though both candidates were endorsed by AIPAC, Nadler was critical of the group’s endorsement of dozens of election-denying Republicans, as well as its targeting of progressive Jewish Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who lost his own member-on-member primary earlier this month after the lobby spent millions of dollars supporting his opponent. Nadler also supports a potential renegotiated version of the Iran nuclear deal, which the broader conservative pro-Israel lobby has opposed.

As Maloney’s poll numbers began to plummet in the closing days of the race, DMFI — which has used its considerable financial resources to push conservative positions on Israel policy, including opposition to the Iran nuclear deal — attempted to distance itself from its endorsement of Maloney, for whom the group raised funds throughout the cycle.

Progressive candidates also racked up wins in a number of competitive state Senate elections, where Democratic Socialists of America and Working Families Party-backed incumbents trounced moderate challengers who were buoyed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending and the support of New York City Mayor Eric Adams. And progressive incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman handily turned back moderate challenger Vedat Gashi in New York’s 16th District. In New York’s 14th, moderates failed to even sport a challenger to national progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

There were two notable exceptions to the pushback on big money and corporate Democrats, in New York’s 17th and 11th Districts.

In the 17th District, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm, kept his spot in Congress with a wide margin on Tuesday. Several outside groups, including the union for New York City cops, poured just under $700,000 into the race during its final weeks to support Maloney and attack his opponent, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi. Nearly half a million of that sum came from the police union alone. Biaggi received around 33 percent of the vote to Maloney’s 67 percent.

Biaggi attacked Maloney as a “selfish corporate Democrat” and resurfaced criticism of his record on voting with Republicans against portions of the Affordable Care Act. But her campaign was no match for Maloney’s advantage in fundraising, polling, and institutional support combined with the rush of outside spending just before Election Day. Maloney prevailed despite facing criticism over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy to boost extremist Republican candidates in several recent primaries, hoping to help Democrats’ chances in upcoming November general elections.

After he came within 12 points of losing his seat to a Republican in 2020, New York’s recent redistricting put Maloney in a newly drawn district where his odds would have been worse in November. He switched to run in the 17th, pushing the incumbent there, Rep. Mondaire Jones, to run in the 10th instead. Jones had fewer ties to his new New York City-based district, likely contributing to his loss Tuesday night.

Another exception occurred in Bay Ridge and Staten Island, where former Rep. Max Rose won the 11th District primary against Brittany Ramos DeBarros, scoring a chance to return to Congress after Republican Nicole Malliotakis ousted him in 2020. DeBarros’s bid set up a proxy challenge between Staten Island union organizers — including Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, who endorsed her campaign — and Rose’s corporate allies, including the Democratic consulting and polling firm Global Strategy Group, which conducted polling for Rose’s campaign and helped lead efforts to defeat the ALU in his district.

Rose made a name for himself as one of the party’s most valuable front-line Democrats in 2018 after he won a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Despite the fact that he has aligned himself with the former president — including in 2020 campaign ads boasting that he “stood with President Trump when Democrats attacked him for killing an Iranian terrorist” — Trump endorsed Malliotakis last cycle. Following his victory on Tuesday, Rose will face Malliotakis in November.

Update: August 25, 2022
This story has been updated to include post-election coverage of Pat Ryan’s victory.

Correction: August 29, 2022
This story previously said that Democratic Majority for Israel and Mainstream Democrats PAC spent in favor of Florida State Sen. Randolph Bracy’s campaign for the state’s 10th Congressional District. Though DMFI endorsed Bracy, the expenditures came from Urban Empowerment Action PAC, which is funded by a prominent DMFI donor.

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