I represented the area for 16 years in Congress. Until recently, it was a sleepy, purple suburb, withdrawn from the frenzy of American politics. Most of my town meetings required the incentive of free bagels and coffee to attract a crowd. Ideological passions existed, but most voters were concerned about taxes and traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
If you want a model of a suburban congressional district that both parties must win in November, look no further than New York’s 3rd Congressional District, on Long Island, where a special election today will replace the expelled George Santos.
In recent years, the district has been thrust into the political limelight. In 2022, it elected Santos, who lied, connived and contrived his way into Congress. If my former district should be rewarded for anything, it’s that we managed to elect a congressman who brought Republicans and Democrats together in a rare bipartisan act to kick him out. Now the special election to replace him occurs when the Speaker of the House has a razor-thin seven-vote majority. The national stakes couldn’t be higher for an electorate that yawns at national politics.
Having served as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years, I know firsthand that a six-week special election presents a herculean challenge for a candidate to raise money, build name recognition and develop the ground game required to win. And the two parties took radically different approaches to selecting their candidates.
The Democrats chose former Rep. Tom Suozzi, my successor in Congress, who decided to challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul in the primary in 2022 rather than running for reelection to the House. Normally, the rules of politics dictate that when you take on the leader of your party and lose, you’re finished. You can’t even run for precinct captain. But in a remarkable display of urgency by national Democrats to produce a well-funded, well-known candidate; an act of magnanimity by Gov. Hochul; and no deficit of brashness by Suozzi, he overcame this perceived disloyalty to get the nod.
Suozzi is, on paper at least, the perfect candidate for a condensed special election. He’s been in the public eye since the early 1990s. He was mayor of the city of Glen Cove, Nassau County Executive and a member of Congress. He jumpstarted the special election with high name recognition, proven fundraising and a political organization.
Meanwhile, the GOP has selected Mazi Melesa Pilip, a virtual newcomer to politics with only two years of experience in the Nassau County Legislature. Pilip has an interesting story to tell voters, as a mother of seven originally born in Ethiopia and a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. But unlike Suozzi, she’s unknown, untested and has made repeated comments that draw her knowledge of government into question. A recent Newsday editorial found that Pilip lacked awareness of basic government institutions in Nassau County and has been “accompanied at campaign events by a GOP party validator” who helps “to answer questions for her.”
As a result of Pilip’s inexperience, the GOP has strategically put her under wraps with minimal campaign appearances and few debates. Where Santos was a fabulist, Pilip seems to be a phantom. But the strategy may work.
While the district historically favors Democrats, Republicans have consistently overperformed in recent cycles. Democrats have been winning handily in the suburbs in special elections lately, propelled by abortion and unease with the MAGA movement, but something is wrong on Long Island. President Biden won Nassau County by 10 points in 2020, but Gov. Hochul lost it by 10 points just two years later.
What changed? The narrative propelling voter unease on Long Island is crime and immigration. The progressive Democratic message of several years ago to defund the police and institute cashless bail has roiled an electorate that values the orderliness of the suburbs and is home to many residents that commute to New York City for work. And recent headlines have been dominated by busloads of immigrants arriving in NYC. Republicans have pilloried Democrats on these issues, and now they’re hammering Suozzi with the same playbook.
In a debate in the 2022 gubernatorial primary, Suozzi mentioned that he “kicked ICE out of Nassau” when he was county executive. Republicans have pounced on the comment and tried to define Suozzi as an open-borders, sanctuary-city supporting liberal. He’s not, but as the political saying goes, “once you have to explain, don’t bother.”
Suozzi’s response has been a combination of offense and defense. His campaign and the DCCC remind us that Pilip is running on a national party platform that will ban abortion. (Pilip says she is pro-life but not in favor of a national ban.) At the same time, my mailbox has been stuffed with reminders by the Suozzi campaign that he worked with Republicans to fix the border. One remarkable ad features a photograph of him with former Rep. Peter King, whose centrist politics veered further to the right on immigration and police issues, raising some Democrats’ eyebrows but likely reassuring many moderate voters.
In the end, this election will come down to turnout. It’s a challenge to get voters to the polls in a special election, especially one in the middle of February. The Democrats have an advantage in the air war (money, commercial time, resources and name recognition), but the Republicans are counting on a legendary turnout operation to win it on the ground.
When I speak to Republican leaders, they exude a Churchillian confidence about their turnout operation. Democrats, meanwhile, predict that Trump’s unpopularity, the shadow of George Santos and Republican extremism on abortion will propel moderate voters to reject the GOP.
No matter the result, Democrats and Republicans will race to parse the electoral tea leaves.
The problem with special elections is that they tend to produce more punditry than voters. Having seen my share of these elections while chair of the DCCC, I know that they detect overtures, not finales. While there is considerable scholarship to indicate some ability of special elections to serve as harbingers for upcoming elections, particularly if the district flips parties, the picture is not entirely clear.
Ultimately, the special election won’t reflect the overall national mood, but it will reveal the pulse in must-win suburban districts in November. And judging by recent polling showing Suozzi’s lead over Pilip being within the margin of error, it’s going to be close.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. Follow him @RepSteveIsrael.
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