Democrats' must-win race for Santos seat comes down to wire

Politics NY special election 020924 AP Brittainy Newman

A critical race for Democrats in ex-Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) House district is coming down to the wire with just one day to go before voters head to the polls.

Democrats have eyed the seat, which Republicans claimed in an upset win in 2022, for months since Santos was expelled from the House in December. A few polls have shown their candidate, former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), leading Republican Mazi Pilip, but the race has remained tight going into the vote.

The results of the race could be a source of hope as the party seeks to win back control of the House in November. On the other hand, if Democrats lose, it will raise alarm bells for a party already grappling with fears over a weak incumbent president and leaning on New York as key to its efforts to flip the lower chamber.

“To pretend this does not have national significance is ridiculous,” said one New York Democrat.

Democrats throughout much of the country had an impressive showing during the midterm elections in 2022, largely avoiding a historical trend that usually sees the president’s party lose seats in Congress during the midterms after their election. The party kept control of the Senate and only narrowly lost a majority in the House. 

But one exception to the party’s performance was New York, where they lost four seats in key battleground districts that helped deny Democrats a House majority. They now have a chance to make up for one loss in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Santos, who was kicked out of the House over the many false claims he made about his background and the charges he is facing. 

Democrats are confident in Suozzi, who previously represented the district for six years before leaving his seat for an unsuccessful gubernatorial run. But the race appears headed toward a close finish based on public polling and expectations among members of both parties. 

Suozzi has led Pilip, a relatively little-known Nassau County legislator, in each of the few polls taken on the race, but within the margin of error. A poll released last week from Emerson College Polling/PIX11/The Hill found Suozzi leading by 3 points, with 3 percent of voters undecided. 

The race for who will represent Nassau County and a bit of Queens County for the remainder of the term has also taken on national significance. Pilip and Republicans have sought to tie Suozzi to President Biden, who is facing a low approval rating throughout the country and in the district, and have hammered him on the issue of immigration. 

The New York Democrat said the issues of crime and immigration are working in Republicans’ favor and noted that a major migrant tent facility is set up in Queens, bringing the national issue right to voters in the district. 

The Democrat pointed to how Suozzi and his party are significantly outspending Republicans and Pilip in the race, demonstrating their investment in the outcome. 

“They’re doing it because there’s enormous national stakes, the future of Congress and how these issues resonate in a suburban region,” the Democrat said. 

But the party may still have an uphill battle competing for the district. Although Biden won the district in the 2020 presidential election by about 8 points, Santos carried it by more than 7 points in 2022. 

Long Island, where the district is located, has also increasingly been electing Republicans in the past few years, and demographically it has shifted toward the GOP. 

“Win or lose, the dynamic of this race is a reminder of the headwinds that Democrats face in New York right now,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. 

Suozzi has been particularly active in responding to some Republican attacks in recent weeks, emphasizing his support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would have addressed the situation at the border while criticizing Pilip for her opposition to it. The bill failed to advance last week after former President Trump urged Republicans to oppose it. 

Suozzi has also sought to distance himself from Biden, telling CNN that he could “pretty much guarantee” that Biden would not be campaigning for him in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. He also told a New York-based Fox affiliate on Monday that “the bottom line” is Biden is old, in response to a question about the incumbent’s age. 

He said he will “likely” support Biden if he is the nominee but “we’ve got to see what happens.” 

Ferguson said he is not surprised about Suozzi’s approach. 

“Because he’s a former congressman and a well-known quantity in that district, he wants the race to sink or swim based on the contest between him and his opponent,” he said. 

Ferguson also raised some doubts about the meaning of a special election in February with a snowstorm on its way, saying that special elections in general are driven by “asymmetric factors” even though they do give some warning signs to the parties on a state and national level. 

Some Democrats view the election as more pivotal heading into November — one that will reveal the potency of immigration as a national issue and shape the messaging strategy of both parties. 

“New York-3 is the big bump in the road that’s going to change everything one way or the other,” a former Democratic aide who retains close contact with Capitol Hill said. “And whether Democrats like it or not, it’s going to determine where we are.”

The former aide said some Democrats will panic if they do not win Tuesday and urge Biden to issue executive orders related to the border quickly. But the aide warned that if Suozzi wins, Democrats might experience a “false sense” of comfort. 

“I don’t believe that if we win New York-3 that we’re out of the woods on immigration,” the aide said. 

A House Republican strategist said the fact that the race is competitive despite Democrats outspending Republicans and the district having comfortably voted for Biden in 2020 is “a win in itself.” The strategist said the snowstorm will likely not help Pilip, with Republicans tending to vote on Election Day, while Democrats are more likely to vote early. 

But if Pilip can pull off a win, it will start a “new round of handwringing” about the political environment on issues such as immigration and crime and Biden’s effect on Democratic candidates. 

“If it does go our way, I think it says a lot about the environment in New York and how toxic it is for Democrats,” the strategist said. 

Ferguson argued that the seat is more critical for Republicans than Democrats because the GOP needs it to keep the House majority. The 3rd District is one of five in New York that voted for Biden in 2020 but elected a Republican to the House in 2022. 

But a few of those districts are even more Democratic-leaning than the 3rd is. 

Ferguson said the result in November will ultimately matter more, but the election will be an opportunity to test messaging to learn what is and isn’t working ahead of the fall. 

“The political reality, whether we win or lose here — what will matter will be November,” he said. 

Mike Lillis contributed reporting.

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