Democrat Suozzi wins special election to replace Santos in New York
The special election to fill the remainder of the term of expelled New York Republican Congressman George Santos has become the first test of the campaign strategy for Democrats in critical swing districts that could determine control of the House in November.
Immigration politics have dominated the contest in this New York district that sits thousands of miles from the U.S. border with Mexico. The race is between former Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, who served three terms in the House, and Nassau County Republican county legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip.
Supporters of both candidates said a major influx of migrants into New York City is seriously impacting the district, which stretches from parts of working and middle class neighborhoods in Queens to wealthy suburbs in Nassau County, Long Island.
Public polls show a race tight in a district that has swung significantly in recent elections. President Biden won the district in 2020, but the GOP victory in the 2022 contest in the district, along with others in the New York suburbs, helped them flip control of the House in 2022. Criticism of Democrats' handling of crime drove independents to back GOP candidates.
Candidates and outside groups have spent over $20 million in ads and get out the vote operations on this upcoming election. This time the partisan fight over immigration could be a precursor for the 2024 fight for the White House and the House. Supporters of both candidates voting early over the weekend pointed to border security as a leading issue.
Voters say border security is top of mind
"Immigration is a problem, obviously, because we see it every day. So huge issue right now. And not only that, the immigration is also taking work from our union members as well. So that hurts our pockets as well," said Joseph Karass, a union volunteer for the Suozzi campaign in Queens.
Louis Mayer, a retired New York City policeman, voted early for Pilip in Plainview, N.Y., and said about the impact of the crisis at the border, "it's getting out of control. Most of us feel that. I mean, we feel specifically that the the southern border is crazy and we'd like to see some kind of control there."
In the weeks leading up to the election, Suozzi focused his pitch on fixing the broken immigration system. He says he already has a record from his last term in Congress including his membership in the "problem solver's caucus" — a group dedicated to working across the aisle.
In an interview with NPR during a final-push campaign swing in Plainview, N.Y., Suozzi said he backs a bipartisan immigration proposal that was recently released in the Senate. That bill was derailed by Republicans on Capitol Hill last week. Suozzi said voters want someone who is focused on solutions and sidestepped questions about whether Biden's handling of the border could be a liability for his campaign.
"I wish the president had done something in August," he said. "But it is what it is. And now we just have to keep on moving forward to get it done."
Suozzi criticized his opponent, Pilip, for opposing the bill without specifics about what she should do to solve the problem.
Pilip, who is a registered Democrat, was elected as a Republican to the county legislature in 2021. She was tapped by county Republicans after Santos was expelled and pledges she will change her voter registration. After avoiding questions about whether she voted for Donald Trump, Pilip recently told the New York Post she voted for him in both 2016 and 2020.
Her campaign focused heavily on blaming Suozzi for the record number of migrants entering the southwest border and the impact the broken immigration system is having in New York. She paints him as part of the Washington establishment.
"What Tom Suozzi and Biden did — they totally opened the border. Millions make the way. We don't know if they are criminals. We don't know if they are terrorists. We don't know who they are here," Pilip charged in the one debate between the candidates last week.
In that appearance, and in campaign ads, she also stressed her personal story as an Ethiopian who emigrated to Israel and served in the Israeli defense forces.
A local battle with national implications
In the days leading up to the election Pilip made few public campaign appearances. Her campaign did not respond to multiple requests from NPR for an interview.
Other New York Republicans lawmakers, including GOP conference Chair Elise Stefanik, stumped for Pilip in Franklin Square in Nassau County. And National Republican organizations and major GOP-funded super PACs are blanketing the airwaves on her behalf.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the main political arm of House GOP leaders, spent more than $4 million on the race. The group's investments included a widely circulated television ad saying, "Tom Suozzi helped create our immigration crisis in Congress. He'll make it worse."
The ads funded by national GOP groups also prominently feature President Biden's image, but Suozzi doesn't talk about him, and told CNN the focus was on local issues and he didn't want the president campaigning for him.
Both campaigns focused on getting supporters to vote early, and a forecast for significant snow on Tuesday could impact turnout.
Talking to reporters in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, Suozzi deflected questions about Biden's age, and the report from special counsel Robert Hur that raised concerns about the president's memory.
"I know he's an elderly man. I'm not concerned about his mental acuity, but I know he's an old guy. He's 81 years old. That's a fact," Suozzi said.
As a former congressman aiming to regain a seat in Washington, Souzzi is not shy about saying his party has lost ground in the district in recent years, telling NPR, "We've been losing everything — local races, state races, the federal race."
He's working to link Pilip to Santos, who was expelled after a House ethics investigation found he violated House rules and his campaign spent on personal expenses like Botox and an Only Fans account. Santos is also facing 23 felony criminal charges.
"The bottom line is that my opponent Mazi Pilip is George Santos 2.0," Suozzi told campaign volunteers at an event to boost turnout in Plainview.
Pilip and her GOP allies, on the ground and in paid campaign ads, link Suozzi to Biden, and to progressive Democrats in the House, often nicknamed "the Squad."
Suozzi, who was a member of the moderate "New Democrat" coalition, rejects that comparison, and repeatedly stresses his support for Israel, another major factor in this district with a high percentage of Jewish voters.
"For you to suggest that I'm a member of the squad is about as believable as you being a member of George Santos's volleyball team," Suozzi said to Pilip during last week's debate.
Democrats are also trying to make reproductive rights and issue in this race. Pilip, a mother of seven, says she's personally pro life, but declared in the debate last week, "some things I will support, I'm not going to support a national abortion ban."
But Pilip has been endorsed by the conservative party, which is pushing a nationwide ban on abortion.
Both national party leaders and lawmakers in the Capitol are closely watching the results of the race in New York. It may be a stretch to label it a bellwether for how other competitive races could turn in the fall. But it could show whether Democrats' efforts to try to flip the script on the issue of border security, an issue traditionally pushed by GOP candidates, is effective with suburban voters.
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