MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. — House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) headlined a Saturday campaign rally for Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, the Republican nominee in a special election to fill former Rep. George Santos’ House seat in Long Island and Queens.
Emmer’s presence at the nearly 300-person gathering underscored the seriousness with which both major parties are taking the Feb. 13 race to fill New York’s 3rd Congressional District. The contest ― between Pilip and former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat ― provides Republicans a chance to demonstrate continued success in Long Island, the site of one of the most dramatic rightward shifts in the country in recent years. And if they lose Santos’ seat, congressional Republicans will also come that much closer to losing their fragile House majority.
The rally, at a packed American Legion hall from which many observers were turned away, also showed the degree to which every congressional race has become nationalized. Rather than dwell on the individual differences between candidates, Emmer and other speakers emphasized the need to counter President Joe Biden’s policies on immigration, crime and inflation.
“We cannot afford another four years of Joe Biden and these crooks. We can’t afford another several years of Chuck Schumer. More importantly, we must continue our majority in the U.S. House,” bellowed Emmer, after joking about the need to “raise the energy” following a string of high-decibel speeches. The GOP majority, he said, is “the only thing that has saved this country for years.”
The candidate herself, though, was not there. Pilip, a Modern Orthodox Jew, could not make it because she was observing the Jewish sabbath.
The Nassau County Republican Party, which had worked hard to mobilize the raucous crowd of hundreds, always does its door-knocking on Saturdays and would not make an exception for Pilip, according to a spokesperson for her campaign. New York Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Andrew Garbarino, Nick LaLota, Mike Lawler, Nicole Malliotakis and Marc Molinaro all spoke and were slated to hit the doors for Pilip after the event.
Pilip addressed the crowd in a pre-recorded video instead.
“We need to send a message to AOC and the Squad that their antisemitic, anti-American policies are not welcome here,” she said, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the left-wing bloc known as the “Squad.” Pilip, an Ethiopian-born immigrant to Israel who served in the Israeli military, regards the Squad’s harsh criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
Notably, Pilip did not mention Suozzi. And neither she nor any of the many Republican speakers who preceded her mentioned former President Donald Trump, who came that much closer to clinching the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday. Biden carried New York’s 3rd by 8 percentage points in 2020, but Santos flipped its Democratic House seat by a nearly identical margin in 2022.
Asked whether omitting Trump’s name was a strategic political choice, D’Esposito, a first-term Long Island Republican who spoke at the event, said that at least in his case, it was not.
“I made it very clear that this country’s in a worse place than it was in 2020,” he said.
D’Esposito has not endorsed Trump, but has said he will support the Republican presidential nominee. Pilip, who remained a registered Democrat until recently, has the same stance.
In addition, notwithstanding Trump’s rhetoric about voter fraud, national and Long Island Republicans plan to take full advantage of early voting, which begins on Feb. 3 in New York’s 3rd. D’Esposito and Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joe Cairo both mentioned the importance of early voting.
“Early voting starts next Saturday, the third of February,” Cairo said. “This ain’t about Nassau County, about the North Shore. It’s about the United States of America.”
A short walk away from the American Legion hall, Suozzi, Pilip’s Democratic opponent, held a press conference before Pilip’s rally attacking her for being absent on the campaign trail. He was flanked by several dozen union members from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, or SMART.
“My opponent is bringing people in from throughout the country. … She’s not going to be here. She’s observing the Sabbath. And I understand that and I respect that. But what about the other six days of the week? Where has she been?” Suozzi said. “She’s hiding on debates. She’s hiding on issues. She’s hiding on her finances. We don’t know what she stands for.”
Pilip’s campaign has indeed limited her availability to the press. Pilip, who received her party’s nomination back in December, held her first press conference of the campaign about rising numbers of asylum-seekers on Thursday. She held another press conference on Friday denouncing Suozzi for attending a fundraiser co-hosted by someone who has posted anti-Zionist messages on social media.
On both occasions, she was accompanied by D’Esposito, who occasionally interjected to help answer questions posed by the press. She has done some short interviews with local media outlets, including Fox 5 News, the New York Times and Politico New York, but no long profiles, as would be typical of a high-profile campaign.
“Why wouldn’t I support her? We’re running and we’re gonna represent the same county,” D’Esposito told HuffPost on Saturday. “We’re going to work on similar issues.”
Suozzi has also challenged Pilip to 10 debates and town halls. She has agreed to one televised debate on Feb. 8, five days before voting comes to a close.
Without sufficient detail on Pilip’s positions about issues of particular importance to New Yorkers — like union rights, infrastructure and the restoration of an important tax deduction — Suozzi found a juicy proxy target in Emmer, who has a right-wing record on those same issues.
″[Emmer] voted against the infrastructure bill,” Suozzi said. “He’s anti-choice. He’s anti-gun safety.”
“My opponent is relying 100% on the Republican talking points for every single thing that she says,” he added, of Pilip. “She doesn’t talk about working across party lines.”
If Pilip and her allies are betting that local discontent with Biden is enough to carry her over the finish line, Suozzi is banking that voters are fed up with Trump and House Republicans. He sees Trump and House Republicans’ opposition to a bipartisan border enforcement bill as an example of them putting political gain over smart policy.
“They won’t negotiate a deal. They’re only saying, ‘My way or the highway,’” Suozzi said. “What’s killing our country is that people are just yelling and screaming at each other using their talk points, using their little sound bites, instead of actually negotiating complex answers to complex deals.”