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News & Issues April 2023



Molinaro tries to walk a moderate line in a polarized House



Marc Molinaro speaks to supporters in Hudson on Aug. 23, the night he lost a special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Less than three months later, voters in a reconfigured version of the district narrowly elected him to the U.S. House. Already the freshman Republican is a top Democratic target for 2024. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


There hasn’t been much of a political honeymoon for U.S. Rep. Marcus Molinaro.
Barely three months after Molinaro, R-Red Hook, was sworn in as the new representative of New York’s reconfigured 19th Congressional District, both major political parties already are gearing up to battle over his seat in 2024.

Although a Democratic challenger has yet to emerge, national Democrats have committed to pumping money and manpower into the district over the next year and a half in an attempt to defeat Molinaro, who won in November by a narrow margin of 1.5 percentage points.
His seat is one of 18 congressional districts nationwide -- six of them in New York — where President Biden prevailed in 2020 but Republicans won House races in 2022, according to The House Majority PAC, a national political action committee that concentrates on electing Democrats.

Molinaro’s district, which stretches from the Massachusetts border westward to the Finger Lakes, is the northernmost of three highly competitive House districts that each span the Hudson River between Albany and New York City.

“The Hudson Valley has been sort of a hot political battleground going back through the last four or five election cycles,” said Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College.
That battleground has grown hotter as a result of a court-imposed redistricting last year that increased the number of House districts in New York where voter enrollment is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

In his first three months in office, Molinaro, a self-described “governing-minded Republican,” has positioned himself as a moderate. At the same time, he has taken care not to alienate the culturally conservative voters who form the core of his party’s base.

But his prospects for winning a second term will likely be shaped over the next year and half by how effectively he’s able to function as a moderate in a House caucus that’s dominated by hard-line conservatives — and by how he winds up voting on a series of contentious issues that could run the gamut from limiting abortion rights to raising the federal debt ceiling.


Seeking a middle path
Molinaro so far has focused on bipartisan legislation and kept a low profile on divisive issues while maintaining a reliable Republican voting record. He has not expressed a preference in the nascent Republican presidential contest. He declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
“Congressman Molinaro is three months into his term and focused on delivering results for the people he was just elected to serve,” Molinaro spokesman Dan Kranz said. “There will be plenty of time to talk politics.”

Molinaro has spoken respectfully of President Biden, who carried the newly configured 19th district by 5 percentage points in 2020.

“I certainly have my share of policy disagreements with President Biden, but no matter which party the president belongs to, I think it’s important to have an open dialogue on areas where we can make progress,” Molinaro told The Daily Freeman of Kingston after he met briefly with Biden following the president’s State of the Union address.

Molinaro said he spoke with the president about legislation the congressman had introduced to establish a publicly accessible database of information and resources for those with intellectual disabilities.

The proposal continues Molinaro’s longtime advocacy for people with the physical and intellectual disabilities, whose cause he championed throughout his career as a village mayor, state assemblyman and Dutchess County executive.

Although Molinaro would not comment directly for this report, he did issue a statement through a spokesman.

“I’m focused on bringing the cost of living down for families, farmers, and small businesses, making our communities safer, and enhancing our infrastructure systems, including rural broadband,” he wrote. “These are priorities for the people I represent and where my work will focus on as a member of the House Agriculture, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Small Business committees.”

Molinaro went on to stress his interest in bipartisanship, saying there are “ample opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on issues like expanding mental health care and strengthening federal support for those with substance use disorders.

“I talked with President Biden about this following his State of the Union address and encouraged him to look to governing-minded Republicans like myself to make progress,” he concluded.


Partnering with Democrats
Molinaro has joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members that is “committed to finding common ground on issues” and has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as members.

His effort to chart a bipartisan course is reflected in the number of legislative proposals he’s supported that also have Democratic supporters.

As of March 21, 18 of the 30 bills and resolutions Molinaro had sponsored or co-sponsored, or 60 percent of them, had bipartisan sponsorship.

By comparison, just 23 of the 72 bills and resolutions sponsored or co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, or 32 percent, had bipartisan sponsorship. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, represents New York’s 21st Congressional District, which is more strongly Republican, and she is a member of the party’s House leadership team.

And 50 of 85 bills and resolutions sponsored or co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Tonko, or 59 percent, had bipartisan sponsorship. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, represents the Democratic-leaning 20th Congressional District, which includes the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy as well as Saratoga County.

Molinaro and Rep. Pat Ryan, an Ulster County Democrat who represents the neighboring 18th Congressional District in the Hudson Valley, have co-sponsored several pieces of each other’s legislation. Ryan narrowly defeated Molinaro last year in a special election to fill out the remainder of term of former Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, who resigned from the old 19th district seat to become lieutenant governor. But as the new political maps took effect, Molinaro and Ryan each were able to win election in November in adjoining, reconfigured districts.


Courting a swing district
The new 19th district includes all of Columbia County and extends westward through Greene, northern Ulster and 10 other counties to the west, taking in the cities of Binghamton and Ithaca.
As of Feb. 1, there were 177,481 active enrolled Democratic voters in the district, 159,630 Republicans and 119,959 independents. Although Democrats hold an enrollment edge, Republicans increased their share of the districts voters slightly, from 32.4 percent to 32.5 percent, between November and February.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist in New York City, suggested that given the closely balanced partisan makeup of the new 19th district, it makes sense for Molinaro to set a moderate political tone.

“He’s not running in the Trump direction. He’s running in the middle,” Sheinkopf said. “He’s being very careful to not let the Democrats capture him in the Trump direction. So it’s a smart strategy. It’s the strategy that he won on.”

Supporters say it’s also a strategy that fits with Molinaro’s record before he won a seat in Congress. Molinaro has always taken a bipartisan approach, said David Catalfamo of Wilton, who served in Republican Gov. George Pataki’s administration and was an adviser to Molinaro’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2018.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with politics,” Catalfamo said. “It’s what he has always been about.”

Catalfamo also said it is not surprising that Molinaro and Ryan have co-sponsored each other’s legislation.

“Marc and Pat have known each other for a long time and both served as county executives,” he said.


An opposition on alert
Columbia County Democratic Chairman Stan Hodge said Democrats in the upcoming campaign will focus on Molinaro’s voting record and will attempt to tie him indirectly to Trump through Molinaro’s votes for Kevin McCarthy on every ballot of the race for House speaker.
“Molinaro definitely is not a moderate, and his voting record shows it,” Hodge said.
He said Democrats will pay particular attention to Molinaro’s votes on upcoming abortion legislation and will press him to take detailed positions on Medicare and Social Security.
The latter strategy has already been implemented.

At a recent Molinaro town hall forum in Saugerties, Democrats and Working Families Party members turned out en masse to pressure Molinaro about Social Secure and Medicare, the news site Hudson Valley One reported on March 20.

Molinaro would say only that he does not support cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In a previous interview with Spectrum News, he said: “Medicare and Social Security is not on the table, and I will do everything in my power to protect both.”

The Saugerties event was one of 11 town halls, one in each county in the district, that Molinaro held between mid-February and mid-March.

As of late March, no Democrat had come forward to challenge Molinaro in next year’s election. Those reported to be considering the race include state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, and Josh Riley, the lawyer from the Southern Tier who narrowly lost to Molinaro in November.
Riley carried Columbia, Ulster and Tomkins counties in last year’s race. But Molinaro narrowly prevailed in Broome County, which is the district’s most populous and includes the city of Binghamton, and in its seven smaller, more rural counties.

Hinchey is the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Saugerties, who represented the region for two decades before retiring at the end of 2012. After redistricting that took effect that year, much of Hinchey’s former district was merged into the 19th district, where Rep. Chris Gibson, a moderate Republican from Kinderhook, won a second term in 2012 and a third in 2014. When Gibson stepped down, John Faso, a more conservative Republican, was elected to represent the district in 2016 but lost to Delgado two years later.


House control at stake
In February, the House Majority PAC announced that it has set aside $45 million, which it called “a record investment on the House ballot for one state,” in hopes of flipping six New York seats now held by Republicans, including the 19th district.

Last month, the Democratic group announced that the $45 million will cover the cost of staffing a “New York Rapid Response War Room” that will focus on research and communications in the six targeted Republican districts as well as in the 18th district, where Ryan is running for re-election.

The other districts represented by freshman Republicans that Democrats are targeting are the 1st, 3rd and 4th districts on Long Island, the 17th district in the lower Hudson Valley and 22nd district in the Syracuse area.

Republicans say they are gearing up to protect those seats.
On March 13, Leadership America Needs PAC, the new political action committee of 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, announced that Molinaro is one of five House candidates in its initial round of endorsements.

One of the reasons for the strong interest in New York’s House races is that there are only about 25 races nationwide that are thought to be competitive in 2024, said Turner, the Skidmore professor.

“When the Democrats look nationally, there’s not a lot of swing districts,” he said.
But with Republicans holding a slim 222-213 House majority, Democrats would only need to flip five seats nationally to win back control of the chamber next year. There could be that many seats in play in New York alone.