August 24, 2022 10:38 AM EDT

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Now, an unexpected echo to yesterday’s column: Don’t look now, but Democrats may not be toast in the House. Admittedly, it’s a longshot, but a new data point Tuesday evening made it seem more plausible, sending Republicans in Washington into a late-night scramble as they groped for an answer to an urgent question: how had they gotten a New York special election so wrong?

The seat representing New York’s 19th Congressional District came open in May when Rep. Antonio Delgado was appointed lieutenant governor. Barack Obama twice won the Hudson River Valley district before it pivoted to Donald Trump in 2016 and then to Joe Biden in 2020. In other words, it is one of those corners of the country that analysts see as a barometer for the nation as a whole. And with more than 90% of ballots reported, Democratic nominee Pat Ryan was ahead with 52% of the vote—enough to send him to Washington through the balance of Delgado’s term.

Maybe everything isn’t entirely terrible for Democrats, question mark? Both parties nominated mainstream candidates to fill Delgado’s seat, and invested heavily in the race as they road-tested messages in a dress rehearsal for November: abortion rights for Democrats and the economy for Republicans. In a near-perfect swing district, the small-turnout election favored the Democrat, a county executive from the Establishment wing of the party. This comes on the heels of Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would have made it easier for the state legislature to further restrict access to abortion.

Just maybe, Republicans got their long-sought policy goal of overturning Roe, but will find it comes with long-term political costs.

Special elections have provided a mixed bag for both parties this year. Earlier this summer, Democrats blew a South Texas special election to succeed Rep. Filemon Vela, but then beat expectations in specials in Nebraska and Minnesota. And they weren’t exactly trying in a rural New York district that stayed in GOP hands last night. Imperfect proxies? Absolutely. But there are limited ways to check in with the national electorate before November. Ryan’s win, coupled with a rebounding economy, declining gas prices, and a second-year second wind for President Joe Biden, and Democrats suddenly have less reason to think that November will be the bloodbath that many—including this column—have been anticipating.

Democrats were hardly puffing up their chest Wednesday morning or claiming they had solved their historical disadvantages; after all, it took 9/11 to help a first-term President George W. Bush defy trends that typically see a new White House losing badly in its first at-bat with voters. But the GOP’s warning memo off last night practically writes itself. So, too, does the Democratic playbook going forward.

Republicans seem to have underestimated the punch that abortion rights could pack this cycle. VoteVets—a veterans’ group aligned with Democrats—spent heavily in NY-19 warning that a Republican-controlled Congress would try to pass a national ban on abortion. Over the last 24 hours, the saliency of that issue took on new urgency among the consultant classes of both parties.

The win will be short-lived for Ryan; New York’s hellscape of redistricting moved the district lines badly. Ryan will be on the ballot again this fall for a full term, this time in a neighboring district. Ryan’s defeated opponent, too, will be back this fall—as the nominee in the same 19th District without Ryan on the ballot.

Still, Democrats who have spent the bulk of this year despondent about dire polling, an anemic White House, and dejected voters now have reasons for tempered optimism about that expected Red Wave. The water coming is still MAGA Red, but it may turn out to be more of a slosh.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST