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Feb 12, 2024, 6:12am EST
politics

Needing a feel-good win, Democrats go all-in on NY-3 special

David Weigel/Semafor
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The Scene

PLAINVIEW, N.Y. — Democrats are spending more than $10 million to flip a vacant House seat in New York on Tuesday. Their goal: Take back suburban territory that shifted right during Joe Biden’s presidency, and embarrass Republicans who sank a bipartisan border security bill to keep the issue alive for the Trump campaign.

“People are sick and tired of what they see coming out of Washington, D.C. right now,” former Rep. Tom Suozzi, the Democratic nominee, said at a Sunday morning press conference here.

If GOP nominee Mazi Pilip wins on Tuesday, and Republicans keep blocking border legislation, Suozzi warned that “we’re gonna end up with more migrants coming to New York; and on top of that, they’re gonna have access to AR-15s.”

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The special election in New York’s 3rd congressional district began when the House expelled former Rep. George Santos, who’s facing a 23-count federal indictment. Early voting points to a tight race, with Democrats turning out at slightly higher rates than they did in 2022, when Santos and other Long Island Republicans romped.

Although it was already a closely-watched contest, its importance to the national party has ballooned this week as Democrats look to calm a panic around special counsel Robert Hur’s take on Biden’s age. It also could have a potentially decisive impact on votes in the House, where an effort to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas failed by a single vote last week.

The GOP attempted to make a clean break from Santos by nominating Pilip, a county legislator who was born in Ethiopia, moved to Israel and served in its military, and immigrated to New York in 2005. Little-known before this race, Republicans spent more than $6 million in advertising that told her story and blamed Suozzi and Democrats for the wave of migrants bussed in by red-state governors since Biden took office.

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“I hear concerns about police safety,” Pilip said at a Friday press conference in East Williston, standing with police union leaders who’d endorsed her. “Time and time again we have seen violent activities by unvetted migrants, and acts of hate reach closer and closer to home.”

Suozzi has characterized Pilip as an inexperienced and unspecific legislator who would join Republicans in politicizing immigration without seriously addressing it. He and national Democrats also hit her on abortion, his party’s best-polling issue in the district, as they pointed to Suozzi’s criticism of the “abolish ICE” slogan and support for border fencing as proof that he would pressure Biden.

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The View From Democrats

Both parties have thrown resources into the district, but Democrats have thrown more, trying to activate and persuade New Yorkers who usually skip special elections.

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“We lent him full-time campaign staff,” said Rep. Grace Meng, whose district is next door; she chairs the Aspire PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Her team had been doing “anything from phonebanks to postcard writing events” in different languages, including Chinese and Korean, for Asian-American voters who could make up one-fifth of the electorate and drifted away from Democrats in the midterms.

“We are laser-focused,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. told reporters at this past week’s Democratic policy retreat in Virginia. “There is a huge voting base there. We want to make sure that they get out to vote and, of course, that they vote for Tom Suozzi, and that requires a great deal of follow-up in [their] language.”

Rep. Dan Goldman had supplied help from his Brooklyn and Manhattan district, too, and warned that Pilip, who had given evasive answers on issues like abortion and her past presidential votes, might give voters the same buyer’s remorse as the last Republican who won.

“She has barely any track record. She has essentially hidden from voters,” Goldman said. “She has not been very clear on her positions and NY-03 voters should be very concerned about electing George Santos 2.0.”

The president himself stayed out of the race, and Suozzi told CNN that a visit from Biden would not be “helpful.” But the bipartisan immigration proposal favored by Biden, and blocked by Senate Republicans, was a late-moving issue in the race.

“Republicans have nothing to run on here because they are not serious about addressing the issue,” DCCC Chair Susan DelBene, D-Wash. told Semafor.

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Kadia and David's View

Democrats are throwing everything they have — everything that might move votes — into this race, because winning back the Santos seat would solve multiple problems for them. It would shrink the House GOP’s already-tight majority, reassure strategists their political messaging on border issues and abortion is on track, and confirm that their voters remain motivated despite Biden’s personal struggles. And losing it, even though it went red for a fabulist candidate in 2022, would be difficult to spin.

The party has generally overperformed in Biden-era special elections, especially in suburbs. Long Island has bucked that trend. Suozzi’s old district backed Biden by 8 points in 2020 but, in the Democrat’s words, the party has “lost everything” since then: Federal, town, and county. Republicans blamed them for rising crime after the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the migrant surge after that.

Both topics have worked powerfully in Long Island, where local news bustles with reports of grisly city crime. A scuffle between migrants and police made news for days before early voting started, and Republican ads showed voters video of the incident and clips of the migrants walking scornfully past reporters.

“They should be deported immediately,” Suozzi said on Sunday, reminding reporters that he’d said so as soon as he saw the news. “If somebody came to your house and broke the furniture, would you say, oh, you can sleep over another night?”

If Suozzi wins, he plans to use his restored place – and higher visibility – to nudge Democrats in his direction. His party wants a win, and would take whatever comes with it.

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