The Special Election That Could Give Democrats Hope for November

At the end of 2021, Tom Suozzi made a announcement That infuriated Democratic Party leaders: The third-term representative would forgo his re-election bid from his highly competitive New York House district to mount a long-shot primary challenge against Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Suozzi got beaten, but the repercussions of his ill-fated race extended far beyond his Long Island district. Democrats ended up losing their narrow majority in the House, in part because the seat vacated by Suozzi went to a little-known Republican named George Santos. He is no longer so little known. He's also not in Congress, having been expelled in December after his colleagues discovered that his stated biography was fiction and his campaign was an alleged criminal enterprise.

In a special election next week, Suozzi will try to reclaim the seat he gave up and move Democrats closer to winning back the House. He made amends with party leaders (including Hochul), but he doesn't apologize. “I don’t regret any of my decisions,” Suozzi told me recently. “When it doesn’t work, that’s what it is.”

A pro-business moderate, Suozzi helped create the all-party Problem Solvers Caucus in the House after Donald Trump won the presidency. He told me that his penchant for bipartisanship makes him “a very bad candidate” in a Democratic primary – he has now lost two of those gubernatorial campaigns by more than 50 points – but a much better candidate in a Democratic primary. general elections.

Officials in both parties give Suozzi a slight edge; he has more money and is much better known than his Republican opponent, Mazi Pilip, a county legislator who spent her teenage years in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces. But Suozzi is trying to present himself as an outsider, eschewing a Democratic brand that he says has been sullied on Long Island by voters' frustration over the migrant crisis, high costs of living and unrest overseas . He has kept his distance from President Joe Biden, who Democratic and Republican strategists say is no more popular in the district than Trump. “If I run my campaign saying, 'I'm Tom Suozzi. I'm a Democrat, and my opponent is a Republican, “I'm losing this race,” Suozzi said at a rally in front of carpenters' union members Saturday.

The Third Congressional District borders blue bastion New York and includes part of Queens, but Republicans have crushed Democrats on Long Island in recent years. Tuesday's special election represents Democrats' first attempt to reclaim some of that territory and test messages they hope can resonate in suburban districts across the country this fall.

Like other Democrats, Suozzi emphasizes his support for abortion rights, an issue that has helped the party limit the GOP's gains since the party's reversal. Roe v. Wade. But he also presents himself as a bipartisan negotiator: his campaign slogan is “Let’s fix this!” » Suozzi is betting that voters are as angered by Congress's inaction on issues like immigration and border security as they are by Biden or his policies. If he's right, the Republican Party's rejection this week of a bipartisan border deal that its leaders had initially demanded will work in his favor.

The effectiveness of Suozzi's campaign next week will provide clues about which swing districts could determine control of Congress. A victory could clear the way for Democratic candidates to redirect their attacks on Biden's record and ease fears that the border standoff could be an insurmountable liability this fall. But his defeat in a district expected to be won by Democrats suggests the party is in real trouble as the general election begins.

Next week's election will also serve as a test of whether Democrats can vote for a candidate who, like Biden, doesn't inspire much enthusiasm.

Suozzi, 61, is a familiar figure on Long Island; he became mayor at age 31, then won two terms as county executive overseeing a population of 1.3 million in Nassau County. But he also suffered his share of defeats. Eliot Spitzer beat him by more than 60 points in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. Suozzi then lost two campaigns for county executive before winning a House seat in 2016. “He felt that he was destined to be president of the United States,” said former Rep. Peter King, a Republican who served alongside Suozzi in the House and knew him. for decades, he told me. “Tom started out as a young superstar, and then all of a sudden you become old.”

On Saturday, local union organizers gathered several hundred carpenters' union members into a banquet hall for the rally. Most of them had come by bus from out of town, and many of them weren't really excited to be there. “We're here in protest,” a union member growled as I looked for real Suozzi supporters in the crowd. The murmuring workers showed so little interest in the speakers touting Suozzi that at one point the candidate awkwardly grabbed the microphone and implored them to pay attention.

Some of the attendees who lived in Nassau County were less than enthusiastic about the Democrat, repeating attacks from GOP ads that have aired nonstop in recent weeks. “Suozzi is terrible at the border,” said Jackson Klyne, 44, who told me he had no plans to vote for Suozzi or Pilip next week. A 2020 Biden voter, Klyne said “it would probably be Trump” for him in November.

Suozzi also must convince disgruntled Democrats for giving up his congressional seat to challenge Hochul, which would lead to Santos' election. “It was a dangerous choice,” Stephanie Visconti, a 47-year-old lawyer from New Hyde Park, told me. “I thought it was selfish.”

Visconti volunteers with Engage Long Island, an affiliate of the progressive organizing group Indivisible that supported a primary challenger to Suozzi for Congress in 2020. But she fully supports him now; On Saturday, she and other members of the group were knocking on doors for her campaign. “He is the right candidate for the moment,” she said, citing the need for Democrats to regain control of the House. “Looking at the global situation as a whole, this is for us the first step towards bigger and broader changes. »

Biden won the district in 2020, but Republicans have been ascendant on Long Island ever since. They swept home races at the midterms and won big local races again last year. Santos beat the Democratic candidate in the Third District by seven points in 2022, and Suozzi is not sure he would have won if he had been on the ballot. When I asked him what he would say to people who claim he bears some responsibility for the election of Santos, Suozzi replied: “'Thank you for your support, because you say that I am the only person who could have won.' »

Republican leaders are counting on Biden's unpopularity and their party's prodigious turnout machine to keep their seats. They chose Pilip as their candidate — the special election had no primary — in part because in the aftermath of Oct. 7, they hoped her ties to Israel would resonate in a district where about 20 percent of the electorate is Jewish. (Suozzi is also a longtime supporter of Israel. Less than a week after Pilip's selection, he traveled there to meet with the families of hostages held by Hamas.)

With only one some exceptions, Pilip kept a low profile for a political newcomer. She agreed to just one debate with Suozzi, three days before the election, and she did not hold many publicly promoted campaign events. (Her campaign did not make her available for an interview.) Nassau County Republicans have scheduled their largest campaign rally for a Saturday, when Pilip, who observes the Sabbath, will not be able to attend. She filmed a short video to broadcast in his absence. “The strategy is intentional,” Steve Israel, a Democrat who represented the Third District in the House for 16 years, told me. “She's untested and Republicans are worried she'll say something that could actually cause her to lose the election. They would rather take their pieces to hide it.

This approach could be risky given the district's experience with Santos. “We already had someone we didn’t know. We don’t want this anymore,” Judi Bosworth, a former Democratic town supervisor, said while campaigning with Suozzi.

Abortion was a central issue in the race; Democratic ads have warned that a vote for Pilip could lead to a nationwide ban. But in recent weeks, the migrant crisis has come to the fore again. GOP ads blame Suozzi and Biden for the “invasion” of the southern border, and Suozzi criticized Pilip for his opposition to the bipartisan border security deal unveiled this week in the Senate. Although domestic issues dominate the race, neither candidate wants to be associated with their party's leaders in Washington. Pilip, until recently a registered Democrat, has refused to say whether she voted for Trump in 2020 and has yet to endorse his candidacy when he returns. When House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke at a rally in support of Suozzi on Saturday, the Democrat's campaign did not invite the press. The day before, the Pilip campaign had kept silent about an appearance by President Mike Johnson.

Next week's outcome could have an immediate impact in a closely divided House, where Republicans have just a three-vote majority. Earlier this week, Republicans fell just one vote short of impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; a Suozzi victory would likely keep it on hold, at least for now. But Suozzi wants to make a deeper impression in a second term in Congress. He campaigned not as a dispassionate centrist, but as an impatient negotiator eager to return to the negotiating table.

He had wanted a more important position, but he assured me that he would not mind returning to the House. I asked him what message his victory would send. He's rattled off a list of bipartisan deals he wants to make — on the border, Ukraine, housing, climate change, and more. “If I win,” he declared, “I will be able to go to my colleagues in Washington and say to them: 'Wake up.' That's what people want.

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