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Feb 16, 2024, 1:03pm EST
North America

How Suozzi won, according to a New York insider

Democratic Rep.-elect for New York's 3rd district, Tom Suozzi, delivers his victory speech at his election night party, in Woodbury, New York, on Feb. 13, 2024.
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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Rep.-elect Tom Suozzi’s 8-point special election victory shrunk the House GOP majority, emboldened Democrats who were worried about messaging on immigration, and broke a losing streak for New York Democrats. Many of the gains it made in the Trump era were reversed in the Biden years — especially on Long Island, where the party was swept out of power and lost every House seat. But on Tuesday, Jay Jacobs, the chair of both the Nassau Democratic Party and the state party, was celebrating onstage with Suozzi. He talked with Americana about what happened, and this is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Q&A

Americana: Why did Tom Suozzi win this race?

Jay Jacobs: Number one: We had the right candidate, and I think they had the wrong candidate. Secondarily, I think he was right on the issues, and if you don’t persuade your electorate, you could do everything else right, but it won’t make a difference. The third part was our organizing and the field, and that we prepared for the possibility of a blizzard.

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I had said it publicly to our team, when the date of the special election was picked, “February 13 This is New York, and we could get a blizzard, so let’s prepare for that. Let’s get as many absentee ballots back as we possibly can.” That differentiated us from the Republicans, who were completely unprepared. We ended up having 81,000 votes in the bank, so to speak, right before Election Day, and there were only 90,000 votes on Election Day. That’s unprecedented.

Americana: What was your initial reaction to Mazi Pilip? Did you know who she was?

Jay Jacobs: I knew her, but I guess I hadn’t seen her in action. I didn’t know how she would come across. But immediately, I understood that this was probably a strategic move on the part of the Republicans, to underscore the importance of the October 7 terrorist attack in Israel. They probably felt that they could gain an advantage, winning over Jewish Democrats who would otherwise vote for Suozzi.

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I don’t think it worked out. I think the debate performance — her presentation, in terms of how she addresses issues, her lack of knowledge of the issues — that all came together to demonstrate that she was not qualified to be a member of Congress.

Americana: Did it help that Suozzi had run against Gov. Kathy Hochul, in a very high-profile way, breaking with her on bail reform and taxes?

Jay Jacobs: In an odd sort of way, it helped him. It certainly laid out to the voters who he was well before the Republicans had any opportunity to paint him as something he wasn’t. Look, in my thinking, he was always the best and strongest candidate, and this was always about winning. Fortunately for him, the governor also felt this was only about winning. It’s no secret that it was a rough primary campaign that he waged against her, and I had disagreed with that. But the governor understands priorities. The priority was winning the seat.

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Americana: Republicans ran hard on the migrant issue, putting news about migrant crime in their ads as soon as it happened. How’d that affect the race?

Jay Jacobs: It had us worried. When those migrant hooligans assaulted the two police officers in Times Square, it reminded me of the news story in 2022, when a person was shot in front of [then-Rep.] Lee Zeldin’s house, in the midst of his gubernatorial campaign. I said to myself: How the heck can this happen? How unlucky can we get, that this happens right in the middle of our campaign where that’s a sore point against us? How does that happen? It was, to me, very concerning, and I didn’t know what the impact would be on the electorate. But I don’t think people turned around and said: “Well, if it wasn’t for Tom Suozzi, they wouldn’t be here.”

Americana: How much had changed on the ground since 2022, when Zeldin was running his campaign against crime?

Jay Jacobs: When I was building my models as to what we needed to turn out, the big question was how unaffiliated voters would break. Our models showed that in 2022, when Santos won, Robert Zimmerman only got 46% of the unaffiliated, independent vote. I asked my team: Are people less angry or more angry this time, compared to the 2022 election? Unanimously, everybody said they were more angry back then.

I agreed with that. The bail situation has been solved. People weren’t happy about migrants, but don’t think they see them on their front lawn. And just because people aren’t happy about something doesn’t mean they’re gonna base their whole vote on it. It just means they’re unhappy. So we felt the Democratic share of those unaffiliated voters would go up, and it did. The Republicans made the mistake of fighting the last war.

Americana: On immigration, six years ago I was covering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez making abolish ICE a huge component of her campaign. Obviously, Jackson Heights and Glen Cove are a little different. But what’s the conversation going to be among Democrats now? Is the less-enforcement argument just over?

Jay Jacobs: You have to balance the border security issue versus the humanitarian aspect. A mother, father, and their kids who make their way away from violence in El Salvador — a 1000-mile trek in terrible circumstances — you can only have compassion for them, if you’re a decent human being. But on the other side, you can’t possibly take the 8 billion people in the world who want to come here and pack them all into the United States.

Americana: Speaker Mike Johnson’s take on the race is that it was basically a fluke — Suozzi ran as a Republican on immigration, the weather factor. What’s your response to that?

Jay Jacobs: Look, political leaders are in control of an awful lot. But only God is in control of the weather. Their argument is that [on Tuesday], God was on our side? I’ll take that, for sure! But I think it’s pure nonsense to suggest that we would have had a different outcome. The snow falls on everybody. Johnson’s such a phony. That guy is awful.

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