Former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi Wins Special Election To Succeed George Santos

His victory over Republican county legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip is a coup for Democrats.

Overcoming dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and a surge in migrant arrivals that has played to Republican strengths, former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, won Tuesday’s special election to succeed ex-Rep. George Santos in New York’s 3rd Congressional District.

Suozzi defeated Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Republican, in a Long Island and northeast Queens seat that is nearly identical to the one he previously represented for three terms.

Suozzi had vacated the seat in 2022 to mount a quixotic bid for governor, prompting an open race where Santos, a Republican and federally indicted serial fabulist, won. (Congress expelled Santos in December, prompting the special election.)

In election-night remarks that were briefly interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Suozzi emphasized the need to unite the country behind common goals and relished in his opponent’s failure to paint him as an open-borders leftist.

“Despite all the attacks, despite all the lies about Tom Suozzi and the Squad, about Tom Suozzi being the godfather of the migrant crisis, about ‘Sanctuary Suozzi,’ despite the dirty tricks, despite the vaunted Nassau County Republican machine – we won!” he declared to cheers from the crowd at an upscale wedding venue in Woodbury, New York.

Democrats’ takeover of a GOP-held swing seat at once narrows Republicans’ already slim majority in the House, and provides a much-needed jolt of momentum for the party in the White House.

“Getting a win in a tough special election in a district that was trending red is a big boost and shows Democrats continue to defy expectations,” said Eric Koch, a spokesperson for Battleground New York, a progressive coalition fighting to help Democrats win the five Empire State House seats that Biden carried in 2020.

Biden carried New York’s 3rd by eight percentage points in 2020, but polling currently shows him losing the district in a head-to-head rematch against former President Donald Trump. Suozzi’s victory suggests that there is a playbook for Democrats in swing seats struggling to overcome Biden’s unpopularity and frustration over the influx of asylum-seekers and other migrants that has occurred on Biden’s watch.

Suozzi affirmed his commitment to border security in two TV ads, and in the final days of the campaign, slammed Pilip for opposing a bipartisan Senate deal to shore up the border after Trump warned that it would benefit Biden. What’s more, Suozzi and his allies were apparently able to get the latter point across without the benefit of advertising and direct mail, since they decided that there was too little time to make it a worthy topic for paid communication.

“Trump handed Suozzi a gift, while Suozzi was in a defensive crouch on immigration,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “He was able to flip the script a little bit and say: ‘See, this is an example of what you would get if you elected another Republican.’”

At the same time, a defeat for Suozzi would have been doubly devastating for Democrats who went all in for him. Suozzi and the groups backing him jointly spent $13.5 million on TV advertising — about $6 million more than their Republican counterparts.

Battleground New York knocked on 100,000 doors for Suozzi in just over a month’s time, securing 10,000 commitments to vote for Suozzi.

“The road to a Democratic House majority runs right through New York, which is why Battleground New York jumped right into this hard-to-predict special election,” Koch said.

The Democratic Party had understandably hoped to capitalize on the existing embarrassment of Santos’ scandal-plagued term with a special-election win that could generate forward momentum ahead of a November election beset by concerns about Biden’s standing. Making a dent in Republicans’ wall of support in Long Island, where suburban voters have galloped to the right since 2020 in defiance of national trends, was as sure a way to do it as any.

The nature of a special election on a short timeline also provided New York Democrats a critical stroke of fortune. The party got to anoint Suozzi, a former mayor of Glen Cove and Nassau County executive, as nominee without a messy primary.

“When they see a Black woman, a mother, an immigrant, not agreeing with the progressive agenda that you and your party promoting, they have an issue with that.”

- Mazi Melesa Pilip, Republican county legislator

“If a guy like Tom Suozzi, with his name recognition and accomplishments in local government and in Congress, and with all the money he had to spend, still lost, then the Democratic Party could be in a lot more trouble than some people already think,” Levy said, speaking before Election Day about a hypothetical outcome.

Suozzi succeeded in making the race a competition between two candidates — “Suozzi vs. Mazi” — and their respective merits. He blasted her for avoiding press scrutiny for the first month of the campaign, and agreeing only to a debate on Feb. 8, just five days before the conclusion of voting.

At that debate, Pilip appeared plainly outmatched. In an exchange about whether she supported a national assault weapons ban, Pilip said that she supported a ban on “automatic” rifles, even as Suozzi pointed out that automatic rifles have been illegal for decades.

“My opponent is unvetted and unprepared,” he said alongside Pilip onstage. “We’ve been down this road before with George Santos. We can’t go down this road again.”

He likewise cast doubt on Pilip’s commitment to abortion rights, by noting that, among other things, she supported the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision returning abortion to the states, and refuses to identify as “pro-choice.” Pilip maintained that while she is personally “pro-life,” she supports a woman’s right to an abortion and would not back a “national ban” without specifying what that means. At a Friday press conference touting her law-enforcement-union endorsements, she also declined to answer HuffPost’s question as to whether she would vote for the ballot initiative in November that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Pilip, an Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, argued, however, that the grumbling about her evasiveness reflects the liberal media’s bias against a Black woman who did not conform to their stereotypes.

Suozzi painted Nassau County Legislator Mazi Pilip, the Republican congressional nominee, as a policy lightweight who could not be trusted to protect abortion rights or gun control.
Suozzi painted Nassau County Legislator Mazi Pilip, the Republican congressional nominee, as a policy lightweight who could not be trusted to protect abortion rights or gun control.
Brittainy Newman/Associated Press

“You know what the problem? When they see a Black woman, a mother, an immigrant, not agreeing with the progressive agenda that you and your party promoting, they have an issue with that,” she said in her Feb. 8 debate with Suozzi. “And I felt it.”

She and her allies also sought to make the race a referendum on Biden’s immigration policies, in which she cast her opponent — “Sanctuary Suozzi” — as an active participant. Those attacks were potent in the suburbs of New York City, which has absorbed more than 170,000 asylum-seekers and other migrants in the last two years alone.

In television ads, the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ main super PAC, homed in on Suozzi’s decision to end cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, while serving as executive of Nassau County in 2007. The spots featured a clip of Suozzi touting the decision during a 2022 gubernatorial debate, at a time when he was challenging New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) from the right. Suozzi had been emphasizing his pro-immigrant record in an answer explaining why he nonetheless could not support granting noncitizens voting rights.

As with many political attacks, the Republican hit against Suozzi lacked context. His decision to end cooperation with ICE had been the result of a request from his police commissioner following an ICE raid that local law enforcement insisted had endangered local cops and police-community trust in the region.

Suozzi pushed back hard on television, featuring, in one ad, a clip from a 2018 interview on Fox News in which he defended ICE. The ad states that Suozzi would work with Republicans to shut down illegal immigration while opening paths to citizenship for law-abiding residents. “And anything else you might hear is garbage,” Suozzi concludes as he throws a garbage bag in the trash.

He also connected Pilip’s opposition to the Senate border deal to her failure to clarify her position on an assault weapons ban. If Pilip wins, he warned at a campaign event on Sunday, “We’re going to end up with more migrants coming to New York. And on top of that, they’re going to have access to AR-15s.”

Suozzi’s deep roots in the district likely made it easier for voters to trust his assurances that he did not embody the qualities they might dislike in Biden or the national Democratic Party.

HuffPost caught up with Robert and Monique Marmorale of Locust Valley after they cast their early votes in Glen Cove on Friday.

When discussing the prospect of a Biden-Trump matchup, the couple preferred the term “disgusted” to “undecided.” They both cited uncontrolled immigration as a top concern, linking it to an uptick in car thefts on Long Island.

But while Robert, a businessman, expressed concern that Suozzi would be too beholden to Gov. Hochul after securing her blessing, Monique cut in to say that she disagreed.

“Tommy has both parties’ concerns at the top of his priority list,” she said. “I don’t think he’s just committed to one party.”

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