Democrats are looking to avert an embarrassing defeat in Tuesday’s high-stakes special election for former Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) House seat, a race that could have broader implications for November as the party hopes to flip the lower chamber.
Although Democrats see the seat as a prime pickup opportunity, recent polls have shown their nominee, former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), locked in a tight race with Republican Mazi Pilip, who has sought to tie him to President Biden’s policies, especially on immigration.
With New York viewed as key to Democrats’ chances of winning the House, the race is an important bellwether for both parties. And a Democratic loss would raise alarm bells for a party grappling with an incumbent president dogged by low approval ratings and growing concerns over immigration.
“Both sides will say this is a must-win election, but the stakes are higher for Democrats. Suozzi’s high name recognition, combined with the fact that he’s leading in nearly every major poll, sets an expectation that Democrats will regain control of this seat,” Democratic strategist Greg Drilling said. “If Pilip pulls off a victory, it will be seen as a major upset that generates momentum for Republicans heading into November.”
Republicans scored an upset victory in the district in 2022 when Santos won by more than 7 points. The district under its current borders would have voted for Biden over former President Trump by 8 points in the 2020 presidential election.
In the aftermath of Santos being expelled from the House in December following the House Ethics Investigation into the many false statements he made about his background, Democrats seemed poised for a chance to further narrow the GOP’s already-narrow majority in the body.
The party turned to Suozzi, who previously represented the district for six years before not seeking reelection in 2022 to pursue an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, as their nominee.
Democrats have described Suozzi as a familiar face for New York’s 3rd Congressional District who has developed a reputation as a moderate well-suited to represent the district’s constituents.
He is facing an opponent who at least started the campaign as a relatively unknown candidate who served in the Nassau County Legislature.
Suozzi and the Democrats have also comfortably outspent Pilip and the Republicans throughout the race.
But the handful of polls conducted on the race have shown a tight match-up with Suozzi in the lead, though within the margin of error. Beneath the surface, some reasons for concern linger for Democrats.
Long Island, where the district is located, has more commonly been electing Republicans in recent years. Nassau County, which makes up most of the district, has leaned Democratic at the presidential level but is led by a Republican county executive, and a majority of the members of the county legislature are Republican.
The congressional district comfortably voted for former GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin in the state’s 2022 gubernatorial race.
Pilip’s campaign has centered its attacks on Suozzi around immigration, an apparent effort to tie him to Biden, whose policies on the issue have been rated poorly. Voters in the district say immigration is one of their most important issues.
Democrats still expressed optimism about Suozzi winning but recognized the race likely will be tight given the realities of the district.
“Tom Suozzi’s moderate politics and nearly three decades of public service in Nassau County makes him one of the few Democrats in New York capable of winning that district at this moment,” Drilling said. “NY-3 is a swing district that both parties see as winnable, so operatives across the country are closely watching to see what messaging and tactics ultimately resonate with voters.”
He said the strategies the winning campaign uses will likely be adopted in other competitive swing districts this year.
Democratic strategist Gabe Tobias said the election is the first “real race” of 2024 and a bellwether of Democratic chances throughout the year. He said Democrats should win, especially in the aftermath of the “fiasco” surrounding Santos, but Suozzi’s lead in the polls by a few points is “not anywhere near a sure thing.”
Tobias argued Democrats need to work to mobilize their voters to succeed in congressional races this year, focusing on issues like protecting abortion access and democracy in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade overturning and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
Suozzi has sought to push back against Pilip’s accusations that he is weak on securing the border, releasing ads calling attention to his support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and emphasizing his support for the bipartisan Senate legislation on immigration that Senate Republicans ultimately blocked.
Tobias, who served as a senior adviser to the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, argued Republicans are trying to set immigration as the defining issue of the race, but Democrats should not buy into that.
“What that does is just lifting up those right-wing talking points and making it seem like they’re representing reality instead of talking about things that they should be talking about, which is the threat posed to the fundamental nature of our democracy by the far-right,” he said.
“That’s what voters need to be hearing right now. That’s I would say more than anything how Democrats were able to win such surprising victories in 2022.”
One Democratic strategist disagreed, arguing that doubling down on immigration not being a serious issue would cause a worse performance. They said Suozzi is pursuing the right strategy in navigating a difficult position on immigration, but if he loses, it’ll be because national narratives are dominating the race.
“If Suozzi loses, Democrats should be very concerned about November. A Suozzi defeat means that Republicans may have found their winning formula for swing districts in November: Tie the Democrat to President Biden and the border crisis,” they said.
Democratic strategist Tom Bonier said Suozzi needs to simultaneously improve Democratic turnout and persuade more independents than the party did in 2022 when Santos won. He said the signs appear promising for Suozzi so far based on an analysis of early voting and polls, but most people vote on election day.
He added that immigration and abortion likely will be the two issues most impacting voters’ decisions. Democrats have sought to tie Pilip to Republican calls for a national abortion ban, despite Pilip having said she is opposed to abortion but would not support a ban.
A Siena College poll found voters trust Suozzi significantly more than Pilip on addressing abortion, while Pilip performed strongest of several key issues with addressing the influx of migrants into the country.
But Bonier said Democrats may not be in as poor of a position on immigration in the aftermath of Republicans’ “failure” on the issue in Congress.
After negotiators from both parties reached a deal to address the migrants entering the U.S., the legislation failed to advance in the Senate this week after Trump called on members of his party to oppose it.
Suozzi supported the bill, while Pilip opposed it.
“If nothing else, it’s likely blunted the effectiveness of the issue. For me, this will be an interesting but a very early test of have Republicans lost what they, I believe, had hoped to be their most powerful issue in this election,” Bonier said, referring to both the special election and the 2024 campaign.
He was less concerned about the meaning of Suozzi falling short in the race by a few points as long as he improves the Democrats’ margin compared to 2022. He said if Suozzi loses by 8 points, which seems unlikely, that would be a “red flag” for the party, but demographics have caused the district to trend away from Democrats.
If Suozzi wins, Bonier said, it would be a “good sign” that Democrats are equipped with the right strategy for success in 2024.
New York’s 3rd District is one of five House seats in the state Republicans currently hold that Democrats see as key to their strategy to win back the majority.
“To take a seat that was blue in 2020, flipped red … in 2022, to bring it back in is certainly a good sign for Democrats both in terms of ability to take back the House in November but also in terms of the presidential race to the extent that the Democratic playbook is to run against Republican extremism,” Bonier said.
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