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Tuesday brought more evidence abortion rights could help Democrats in November

Democrat Pat Ryan speaks during a campaign rally Monday in Kingston, N.Y., before defeating Republican Marc Molinaro in Tuesday's special election for New York's 19th Congressional District. Ryan had stressed abortion rights on the trail.
Mary Altaffer
Democrat Pat Ryan speaks during a campaign rally Monday in Kingston, N.Y., before defeating Republican Marc Molinaro in Tuesday's special election for New York's 19th Congressional District. Ryan had stressed abortion rights on the trail.

Abortion rights once again appeared to be a key motivator for Democratic voters, and the party establishment showed it still has an advantage, with election results in New York and Florida Tuesday night.

A win in a key special election in New York State is giving Democrats hope of doing relatively well in these midterm elections. They clearly have momentum, though they should probably temper expectations.

Plus, key races in Florida are now set, with Democrats hoping to stop Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis from winning reelection and a platform to perhaps bigger things — and the first Gen Z candidate won with a likely path to Congress, signaling where things may be headed for Democrats.

Here are four takeaways from Tuesday's elections:

1. More evidence that abortion rights has changed the landscape

How many examples does it take to make a trend? Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election in an evenly divided Upstate New York House district that is one of the swingiest in the country. Former President Obama won it in 2012, former President Trump won it in 2016 and President Biden won it in 2020.

Ryan won it by about 2 points Tuesday, and following on abortion-rights supporters' win on a ballot measure in Kansas earlier this month, he made abortion rights the key issue in his election. Republican Marc Molinaro, on the other hand, made his race about inflation and crime.

It can be tempting to overread the results of special elections. They are generally low-turnout affairs that draw the most engaged voters. In recent years, however, they have been indicators of which party has the most enthusiasm, and the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a pretty clear line of demarcation.

In midterms, history is usually on the party out of power's side, and Republicans had success early on in Biden's presidency, overperforming in races in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as special elections earlier this cycle.

But as the Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman lays out, that changed post-Dobbs:

The big question is whether that enthusiasm holds into November when there will be far higher turnout. What's more, political momentum has shifted quickly in this election cycle.

And before rank-and-file Democrats get their hopes up too high, while there may now be an outside shot at the party retaining the House, it's still considered a longshot. At the moment, Republicans need to net just five seats to take back the House, and they have redistricting and history on their side.

Democrats have had problems with setting expectations that they can lasso the moon and then disappoint their base when they only make it to space — even though that's a pretty good accomplishment. (See: Biden's original Build Back Better plan.)

What abortion rights has done is likely given Democrats a real shot at keeping Republicans' margins down in the House and maybe help them retain the Senate, both of which would be major wins.

2. There's no time like the present for establishment Democrats who still (mostly) have the advantage

For as much as Republicans want to stereotype Democrats as extreme progressives, once again the perceived-to-be more moderate or establishment candidates won — in a key Florida race and even in one of the most Democratic-leaning places in the country: Manhattan, Brooklyn and the areas just north of the city.

— Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Sean Patrick Maloney defeated progressive Alessandra Biaggi, 67%-33%. Biaggi had the backing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

— Dan Goldman, who prosecuted the first impeachment case against Trump, defeated a splintered field of more progressive candidates.

In fairness, had progressives consolidated and not split the vote, one of them may well have won. Rep. Mondaire Jones, who was essentially forced into this district because of redistricting and Maloney's decision to run in the 17th District, and Yuh-Line Niou held a news conference before the election encouraging voters not to cast ballots for "conservative Democrat" Goldman. (Only in Manhattan or Oakland could Goldman be considered "conservative.")

Yet, they and several others, remained on the ballot and divided up votes, giving Goldman a path to a narrow victory, which he got, by about 2 points over Niou.

— And in Florida, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Rep. Charlie Crist handily defeated Nikki Fried, the state's agriculture commissioner, by more than 20 points.

This race highlighted a generational divide within the party — and an old school-new school divide over how to do politics. Crist, a former Republican governor-turned-Democrat, cashed in on contacts and worked political power broker networks, and for now, that old-school style won out again.

New school is coming, though. In the Orlando area, thelikely first Gen Z member of Congress won his primary — and it may signal the future for Democratic politics.

"Today's election is proof that Central Florida's working families want representation that has the courage to ask for more," Maxwell Frost, 25, said in a statement. Frost is favored to win election to Congress this fall because of the liberal bent of the district.

3. The results highlight ideological differences within the parties

If more moderate Democratic establishment candidates are winning in many places, the opposite has been true mostly for Republicans this cycle, who are being pulled more to their polarized extreme.

Though candidates Trump endorsed had mixed results Tuesday night, overall, people pushing his election lies are winning or being boosted, though several of them lack political experience.

That's led to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell questioning his party's "candidate quality." The Trump and MAGA brands are going to be tested in purple states and swing districts. And while a wave can push even flawed candidates over the finish line, that's less true with a lazy river current, which is what this election is looking more like.

What's more, even Tuesday, candidates who only a couple cycles ago would have been seen as far off on the fringe lost, but got better than 40% of the vote.

That was the case in Western New York with Carl Paladino, a political gadfly with a history of making offensive comments, and Laura Loomer in Florida. Loomer has regularly posted conspiracy theories, including about COVID-19 vaccines, and calls herself a "proud Islamophobe" and "pro-white nationalism." She won a GOP primary in 2020 before losing by 20 points in the general election.

This time, she lost her GOP primary, but still received 44% of the vote and added a new wrinkle — some Trump-style baseless griping.

"I'm not conceding, because I'm a winner and the reality is our Republican Party is broken to its core," Loomer said in a non-concession speech Tuesday night.

With tears streaming down her face, Loomer, who has been banned from social media platforms, added, "We are losing our country to big-tech election interference."

4. Key Florida statewide races now set

Incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio against Rep. Val Demings is now official. And this race so far has had a heavy dose of Trump. Rubio has criticized the FBI search of Trump's Florida home, while Demings was a Trump impeachment manager.

But there's another issue that is notable to watch — how a Democrat who positions themselves as pro-law enforcement does in a state that's been tipping toward the GOP.

Demings, a former Orlando police chief, hasn't been shying away from that record. She ran an ad, for example, denouncing the idea of "defund the police."

"In the Senate, I'll protect Florida from bad ideas, like 'defund the police,'" Demings says in the ad. "That's. Just. Crazy."

Rubio still has the advantage and this is seen as a bit of a stretch for Democrats to be able to win in this environment, but Demings has outraised Rubio and has done well in some early polling.

The main event, though, very well may be the gubernatorial showdown between Crist and DeSantis.

DeSantis has landed in repeated controversy over his stances on education, women's rights, redistricting and voting, but he's seen as a rising star in Republican circles. Many conservatives see him as a more disciplined version of Trump, someone who can carry the culture-war mantle forward without the chaos.

There's been plenty of DeSantis 2024 talk, but he has to win reelection as governor first.

Democrats went with Crist over Fried, in some measure because of Crist's perceived strength of electability. That's going to be tested. Crist knows the stakes.

"This guy wants to be president of the United States of America, and everybody knows it," Crist said in his victory speech Tuesday night, of DeSantis, without using his name. "However, when we defeat them on Nov. 8 that show is over. Enough."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.