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Who Will Win Special Election?

Tom Suozzi, a Democrat running for his old job in Congress, at a rally in Queens.
Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/=

Stop if you have heard this before: A Democrat so familiar to voters that he may as well be a piece of architecture is running on a promise of restoring order and ending the ridicule and chaos associated with the previous Republican officeholder. But the electorate, a roughly equal mix of Republicans and Democrats, has, over the past few years, seemed to yearn for a return of the chaos.

This is the story of the 2024 presidential election, in which Joe Biden has struggled in the polls against Donald Trump, and also of Tuesday’s special election for Congress playing out in a corner of Queens and Nassau County on Long Island.

The seat was held by George Santos until he was expelled by his fellow Republicans in December over his baroque fantasia of a backstory and egregious campaign-finance fraud. Democrats have nominated Tom Suozzi, a politician practically synonymous with Nassau County. He represented the district in Congress for three terms before leaving to embark on a quixotic primary challenge of Governor Kathy Hochul in 2022. Before that, he was the county executive for eight years and the mayor of Glen Cove on the island’s Gold Coast — as were his father and his uncle before him. Like Biden, he is a proud moderate, someone willing to take on the left flank of his party.

Republicans, meanwhile, have nominated Mazi Melesa Pilip, a two-term county lawmaker. She has a remarkable biography: An Ethiopian Jew airlifted to Israel to escape civil war in her home country at age 12, she later joined the Israeli Defense Forces and eventually settled in Great Neck, where she and her Ukrainian-born husband are raising seven children. But she is little known in the district, has scarcely campaigned, and, when she does, tends to not alert the press. Worse, she misrepresented portions of her biography: Pilip was not an IDF paratrooper, as she claimed on her official biographies on social media, but rather served in the IDF’s paratrooper weapons supply unit. Democrats have eagerly attacked her as another fabulist like Santos.

The Third Congressional District is a quintessentially suburban one — wealthy, mostly white, largely college-educated, and, for a long time, a Republican stronghold. Ronald Reagan once quipped that “when a Republican dies and goes to heaven, it looks a lot like Nassau County.” Ever since then, it has trended more and more Democratic, voting for Barack Obama (twice) and Hillary Clinton and then for Biden. But since 2020, it has become not only Republican but remarkably MAGA-friendly. Santos narrowly flipped the district from Democratic hands by running as an openly pro-Trump candidate, someone who spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally the night before the January 6 riot at the Capitol, and Republicans have won up and down the ballot in both the Queens and Nassau portions of the district since 2021.

“Democrats have been losing everything on Long Island and in northeast Queens for the past three years,” Suozzi recently told CNN. “The Democratic brand is in trouble here, and we have to do a lot to overcome that.”

The race appears to be close, with Suzzoi leading Philip by three-to-four points in two polls released Thursday, and strategists in both parties say it is likely even closer. Democrats who have been fretting over Biden’s abysmal poll numbers have comforted themselves with the fact that the party keeps winning down ballot, particularly in special elections, by attacking Republicans as MAGA extremists, especially on abortion — the same playbook they’re using on Philip. But a loss here, after the party put up someone with near-universal name recognition against a relative unknown in a district that Biden won in 2020 by ten points — with the presidential election just about to get underway in earnest — would cause a freakout. “This is a must-win for Democrats,” said Chapin Fay, a Republican strategist from the area. “Back in 2016, this district was ground zero for Never Trump Republicans, but now you are going to see how many of them are coming back to the Republican Party as a reaction to Joe Biden.”

Mazi Pilip, the Republican in the race, in Massapequa, Long Island.
Photo: Yuki Iwamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While pundits and the press tend to exaggerate the significance of special elections, the hype around this one is deserved: This race matters not just for its predictive power, but for its actual real-world stakes. Republicans currently have just a three-seat majority, slim enough that they can’t pass priority legislation with even a handful of members absent. Last week, they didn’t even have the votes to impeach Biden’s Homeland Security secretary over the border crisis, something they have been pledging to do for the better part of a year. The road to the majority likely runs through New York, where Republicans hold six seats in districts Biden won, including, until Santos stepped down, this one. The Pilip-Suozzi race is showing the contours of the broader campaign that will play out over the next nine months, according to Alyssa Cass, a Democratic strategist working to help flip the House.

“New York has always been the home of moderate, Rockefeller-style Republicans, but the strain of Republicanism that has grown out on Long Island is intense, it is angry, it is frustrated. And the reasons people are frustrated are really real,” she said. “It is schools, it is quality of life, it is cost of living. And then you pair that with a crime increase during and after the pandemic and a New York City tabloid culture that is pumping breathless and hysterical headlines into the district. This is going to give us a lot of clues about what Democrats need to do in November.”

Though Democrats are outspending Republicans, both sides are set to put as much as $10 million into the campaign before the final votes are cast on February 13, pummeling each other on guns, Israel, abortion, and democracy. “This is the first real contest of 2024,” said Gabby Seay, a spokesperson for Battleground NY, which is working to flip GOP-held congressional seats to Democrats. “It is big, and so you are seeing folks on both sides test out their approach.”

As the race hurtles toward its conclusion, the biggest issue is immigration. More than 100,000 migrants have come to New York City in the past two years, making it an outsize issue in an area filled with homeowners who fled the city. More recently, there has been a surge of asylum seekers at the southern border that Republicans have blamed on Biden. Aware that the issue has been a vulnerability in the past, Suozzi ran on immigration early and often, holding a press conference soon after he was named as the nominee to tout his previous work to secure the border. Democrats pointed to the Republicans’ blowing up the bipartisan border bill in Congress as proof Pilip and her party are not serious about actually solving the problem.

Suozzi probably has a better vantage point on the shifting politics of Long Island than  any other Democrat except Jay Jacobs, who is both the head of the state party and the longtime leader of Nassau County Democrats. When we spoke last Tuesday, he was concerned about the potential political damage that could result from a group of migrants who allegedly attacked two NYPD officers, and most of whom were subsequently released without bail (an issue Republicans used to devastating effect on Democrats two years ago). If Suozzi loses, Jacobs believes this would be the reason why.

“We had a group of migrants assault two cops and then not get thrown out of the country immediately. That takes a problem that was already there and magnifies it,” he said. “This news cycle has been horrible on the issue of the border and the migrants, and it’s all the Republicans are campaigning on.”

“Who needed this now?” he added. “I don’t want to find myself where I am the captain of the Titanic and there is an iceberg ahead. And the iceberg is this migrant thing.”


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