When Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip came out against the Senate’s bipartisan immigration deal last Monday, former Rep. Tom Suozzi ― the Democrat running against her in Tuesday’s special congressional election on Long Island, New York ― thought he had hit pay dirt.
Finally, he could accuse Pilip, a Nassau County legislator running almost entirely on an end to the chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border, of being weaker on border enforcement than he is.
“We finally have a chance to have a solution, and we’re not going to do it, because President Trump said it will help Biden?” Suozzi said Thursday evening, during the race’s sole televised debate. “As Mitt Romney said: That’s appalling.”
Pressed by the moderator to lay out her plan to resolve the immigration issue, Pilip fell back on her indictment of the status quo, for which she said Suozzi, who hasn’t been in Congress in two years, bears responsibility.
“They caused this issue,” she said, referring to President Joe Biden, Suozzi, and other Democrats. “Before we even are addressing the issue inside, we have to make sure first and foremost, we need to secure the border. After that day, we have to come up with the plan.”
Pilip’s response was not exactly coherent ― secure the border without a plan? ― but Republicans are betting it may not have to be. Voters in New York and beyond are frustrated with Biden’s management of the border, and polling shows they trust Republicans more than Democrats to fix the problem by wide margins.
In a recent public poll of the race showing Suozzi ahead of Pilip by 4 percentage points ― a lead within the margin of error ― Pilip still had a significant advantage among voters in a question about who would do a better job of “addressing the influx of migrants into the United States.”
“[Suozzi] had years in Congress where he voted 100% of the time with Biden,” said Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm. “That is what voters know and believe about him.”
Tuesday’s neck-and-neck race ― which was set up by the expulsion of fabulist former GOP Rep. George Santos in December ― will be the first to test whether Democrats’ embrace of hard-line measures, including giving the president the ability to shut down applications for asylum entirely, will help them chip away at the GOP’s advantage.
A win for Suozzi in this Long Island and Queens swing district would suggest that Republicans sabotaging a bipartisan border security bill have handed Democrats a powerful talking point to limit the GOP advantage on immigration in races up to and including the battle for the presidency.
“February 13 is really about November 5 and swing, suburban districts around the country.”
“If he’s successful, maybe there are strategies and tactics and messages there that the Democrats running in Orange County, California, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, or in Oakland County, Michigan, can put into play,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
On the other hand, a victory for Pilip in a district that Biden carried by 8 percentage points in 2020 would suggest that anger over the immigration chaos is such that Democrats’ efforts to seize the high ground on border security are going to be harder than they think.
“February 13 is really about November 5 and swing, suburban districts around the country,” Levy said. “That’s what makes this ‘special’ special.”
Suozzi, a moderate whose campaign slogan is “Let’s Fix This,” came under attack early in the campaign for his allegedly dovish immigration record.
Pilip and her Republican backers have seized, in particular, on an episode in which Suozzi ended Nassau County’s cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency while he was serving as Nassau County executive in 2007.
“He even bragged about getting rid of immigration enforcement,” a TV spot funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super political action committee, intones over ominous music.
The spot then plays a clip of Suozzi touting the decision during his 2022 run for governor: “When I was county executive of Nassau County, I kicked ICE out of Nassau County.”
Suozzi has clarified repeatedly that he ended cooperation with ICE at the request of Lawrence Mulvey, Nassau County’s police commissioner at the time. Contemporary news reports confirm that Mulvey took issue with an ICE raid in 2007, in which he said that the civil liberties of local Latino residents were violated, and guns were even drawn on Nassau County police officers.
“You’re pro-law enforcement ― would you say to your police commissioner, ‘Oh, I don’t want to listen to you, police commissioner. It’s OK that they’re breaking the rules and ruining our attempts to try and do community policing’?” Suozzi demanded of Pilip during the debate.
In TV advertising, Suozzi has highlighted more recent efforts to support tough border enforcement. One spot features him shaking hands with a Customs and Border Patrol agent and defending ICE on Fox News in 2018.
And an ad funded by House Majority PAC, House Democrats’ main super PAC, notes that Suozzi co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill with then-Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a popular Long Island politician currently backing Pilip.
HMP has also taken to referring to Suozzi’s opponent as “Mazi ‘Open Borders’ Pilip,” because of her opposition to the bipartisan immigration reform bill that was already on the brink of collapse when she came out against it.
Tuesday’s election will not be a perfect test of Suozzi’s message in the homestretch that he is the real border hawk, and that Pilip has only used the issue to score points. The timing of Pilip’s Feb. 5 announcement that she opposed the Senate deal, eight days before Election Day, limited how much Democrats could hammer the point home to voters. Neither Suozzi, nor HMP, nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have used her position on the deal in paid communications, having concluded that they would not have adequate time for that message to seep into the public’s consciousness.
“Win or lose, Tom Suozzi and Democrats have established a successful playbook when it comes to flipping the script on the migrant crisis, which is having a very serious and outsize impact on New York.”
That gives Democrats a chance to envision how much further the accusation of hypocrisy on the border would go against Republicans in races of longer duration. Indeed, in a hypothetical matchup between Biden and former President Donald Trump, in which respondents are told that Biden is a champion of the bipartisan Senate deal and Trump an opponent, Biden defeats Trump 51% to 49%, according to a new poll commissioned by Blueprint 2024, a Democratic public opinion research project.
“Win or lose, Tom Suozzi and Democrats have established a successful playbook when it comes to flipping the script on the migrant crisis, which is having a very serious and outsize impact on New York,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who advised New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022. “This can be a playbook for races that are being held in places like New York, maybe California, where the migrant crisis is actually in their front yard.”
New York has a reputation for welcoming immigrants, but the surge in asylum seekers and other migrants arriving at the southern border has had a disproportionate impact on New York City and provoked a correspondingly hawkish reaction.
The arrival of more than 170,000 migrants and asylum seekers has generated significant financial strain on the city and the state as they erect temporary housing on the fly with limited help from the federal government.
There have also been a handful of high-profile crimes allegedly committed by migrants given shelter on the city’s dime, which have prompted angry responses from Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams. A video of a group of migrants beating up an NYPD officer during a Jan. 27 arrest made the rounds in local media, leading to immediate condemnations. (A longer version of the video released Thursday showed the police escalating the situation before the migrants engaged with them physically.)
“Get them all and send them back,” Hochul declared on Feb. 1, calling for the alleged attackers’ deportation.
Of course, precisely because of the unique situation in New York, there are those who warn against extrapolating too much from the outcome of a low-turnout special election in a state where the politics of immigration have grown so potent over such a short period.
“I would be cautious to over-learn any message about special elections,” Kelly said.
At the same time, Biden carried New York’s 3rd by 8 percentage points. A defeat for Suozzi in the district would break Democrats’ special-election winning streak and could portend broader problems for the party on the immigration issue.
On Friday, HuffPost spoke to a number of voters casting early ballots in Suozzi’s hometown of Glen Cove, where Suozzi had invited reporters to watch him cast his own vote. (Suozzi was mayor of the town from 1993 to 2001.) One such voter, Greg Coté, a retired NYPD officer and self-described moderate Democrat, is an example of the kind of voter Suozzi could normally count on. Even as Coté voted for Trump twice, he always voted for Suozzi as well.
This time, though, Coté is voting for Pilip, because while Suozzi is a “good person,” the migration influx is “bankrupting the city of New York.”
“When you see there’s a problem, then deal with it,” Coté said after casting his early ballot on Friday. “I think the president could have done something without going to Congress to slow down the amount of people coming in.”
Asked about the demise of the bipartisan compromise in the Senate, Coté responded by denouncing partisan polarization. “I’m not a lover of politics right now,” he said.
As Coté‘s remarks suggest, Democrats’ explanation of the bipartisan immigration deal requires a level of nuance that may be more effective with voters already inclined to give the party the benefit of the doubt. The Republicans’ message is simple: Throw out the party in charge of the White House, since the surge in border crossings has occurred on their watch.
“It’s going to be really difficult to get the high ground on the topic of immigration because we’re kind of in charge right now,” said Colin Strother, who has advised moderate Texas Democrats like Rep. Henry Cuellar. “It’s our White House, it’s our [Department of Homeland Security], it’s our border czar. It’s been going on for quite some time.”
Strother faults Biden for not demonstrating his seriousness on the topic sooner, and recommended that he convene a multilateral summit with the leaders of Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and other countries to stop the flow of asylum seekers traversing the Darién Gap to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Suozzi, no stranger to criticizing the Democratic Party from the right, admits that Biden should have taken the initiative on implementing changes in immigration policy earlier on. In a September comment to The New York Times, Suozzi held up former President Bill Clinton as a model of a Democratic president who co-opted issues raised by his adversaries, turning potential weaknesses into strengths.
“Take the issue they’re attacking you on, make it your own, propose a comprehensive bipartisan solution, and if the Republicans go along with it, then we move the country forward after 35 years of inaction on this very serious issue,” Suozzi said in a Feb. 5 press conference, summarizing his advice to Biden as the border situation heated up. “If they don’t go forward, then you can point out very clearly, ‘Wow, they’re just playing politics and trying to weaponize this issue for political purposes.’”
But while it may have come later than he hoped, Suozzi maintains that Democrats finally called Republicans’ bluff with the bipartisan Senate deal.
Suozzi predicted that political vindication would follow such a move. The election on Tuesday will give a better idea of whether he’s right.