What to watch for in New York’s high-stakes House special election

The special election to replace former Rep. George Santos in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, an emerging battleground that could serve as a bellwether for other suburbs this fall, appears to be headed for a neck-and-neck finish after two months of campaigning bolstered by millions in outside spending.

The district, which encompasses Nassau County on Long Island and northeast Queens, is largely well-educated and affluent – the kind of place Democrats now expect to win – but because of its ideological diversity, a recent trend toward the GOP and a deeply rooted county Republican Party machine, it has become a true Election Day wild card.

Tuesday’s outcome could provide lessons for both parties as the general election season nears and both the presidential contest and the race for control of the House are expected to turn, in large part, on the views of suburban voters.

In the near term, victory for Democrat Tom Suozzi, who previously represented the district in Congress after running Nassau County for most of the 2000s, would provide a lift for President Joe Biden – who won the district by 8 points in 2020 – and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who will likely need the seat if he’s to become speaker next year. Victory for Republican Mazi Pilip, a largely unknown county legislator from Great Neck, would signal the potential for more GOP gains across the country – and provide some comfort to a slate of freshmen GOP House members from New York who will be defending their seats in November.

Suozzi’s election as Nassau County executive in 2001 broke Republicans’ 30-year lock on the position. After losing his bid for a third term in 2009, then falling in Democratic primaries for statewide office, Suozzi was elected to the US House in 2016. He was reelected two more times before leaving the seat for another unsuccessful campaign for governor. But his brand remains strong on Long Island, which led the party to handpick him as the nominee after the special election was called.

Pilip is lesser known in the district but has the powerful county party – which also controls most local offices in Nassau – driving her campaign, which, if successful, would provide the clearest proof yet that Republicans are once again the political kings of Long Island. She would also be the first Black Republican to represent New York in Congress.

Here’s what to watch for:

The three I’s and abortion

Immigration, inflation, Israel and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade framed the political landscape on Long Island while Santos served his final days in office last year. A couple of months on, they remain – along with the cost of housing – the big issues facing the candidates.

Immigration, though, has become – if not the most important – then the most talked about issue in the campaign. Pilip has repeatedly hammered Suozzi over a past clash with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sought to direct anger over the migrant crisis in nearby New York City his way.

In their only debate last week, Pilip said Suozzi “voted to open the borders” and, along with Biden, “created the migrant crisis” during his time in Congress. Though that might seem like a bit of a stretch given Suozzi’s position, frustration with border policy is a potent political tool – especially on Long Island, where voters largely get their news from city outlets and view the city’s problems as previews of their own.

Inflation remains an important topic, but less so than perhaps a year or so ago when prices were soaring. Israel has been a point of discussion, if not debate. Suozzi is a staunch supporter, as is Pilip, who emigrated there and served in the Israel Defense Forces before coming to the US.

Abortion, though, could yet again emerge as an X-factor. Suozzi supports abortion rights and wants to codify Roe v. Wade. Pilip is more difficult to pin down. She calls herself “pro-life” but has said, “When it comes to abortion, every woman should have the choice to make that decision” and that she would not vote for a federal ban.

During the debate, Suozzi pressed her repeatedly to stake out a clearer position. After a long back-and-forth, though, the question remained unsettled.

The Suozzi brand vs. the GOP machine

Suozzi has deep roots in the district. He is a moderate – campaigning, governing and legislating as one. If there had been a primary for the nomination, he probably would have attracted a more liberal challenger. So Pilip’s and GOP allies’ attacks suggesting he’s a “Squad” wannabe didn’t land with too many voters here.

But there is another brand to consider: the Democrats. The party has lost races at almost every level on Long Island beginning in 2021, and Republicans are following a similar playbook this year, hammering Suozzi (and Biden) over New York City’s migrant crisis, along with rising cost-of-living and housing concerns.

Neither candidate is advertising their party affiliation on the thousands of lawn signs across the county, and both have steered clear of national party leaders, at least publicly. However, the singular question entering Election Day is whether Suozzi’s generally positive reputation is enough to overcome a powerful GOP machine that is primed to drive – perhaps literally, in some cases – its supporters to the polls.

Early voting numbers showed registered Democrats turning out at a higher clip, but operatives in both parties aren’t investing much in the information. Democrats tend to vote early; Republicans usually prefer casting their ballots on Election Day.

The twist now is that, for the first time in years, New York is bracing for a significant snowstorm, one slated to hit the area in the early morning. Long Island is relatively condensed – in comparison with a place like Iowa, at least – and a few inches shouldn’t make or break either candidate. But heavier-than-expected snow and sleet could potentially disadvantage Republicans.

Unless, that is, the GOP weaponizes the situation and, in shutting down some public services in deference to the weather, frees up loads of volunteers for door-knocking and other get-out-the-vote work. The top Democrat in the Nassau County Legislature is concerned enough that she wrote letters to County Executive Bruce Blakeman and three town supervisors, all Republicans, demanding their decisions not be clouded by the race.

“It would be an affront to the democratic process,” Minority Leader Delia DeRiggi-Whitton wrote, “and taxpayers alike for County employees to be directed to prioritize ‘volunteering’ for a favored candidate in Tuesday’s special election ahead of fulfilling essential municipal work of keeping roads passable and preserving our safety and quality of life.”

The shunned charlatan has been mostly out of sight and mind since being expelled from Congress last year over assorted personal lies, misconduct and alleged crimes. And for all the hoopla surrounding his brief stint as the district’s nominal “representative,” the specter of Santos is not expected to play a big role in the outcome.

That’s in part because Suozzi has mostly ignored the sage, figuring that’s not what will influence the swing voters he needs to win back his old seat. Democratic operatives also believe that any Santos bounce was baked into the campaign a long time ago – with previously unengaged Democratic voters angry over his deceptions and primed now to vote and, in many cases, volunteer for Suozzi.

Pilip has obviously not spent too much time talking about Santos, but Republicans are banking on an idea that, as the county becomes increasingly Trump-pilled, conservatives might turn out if for no other reason than to stick it to the Democrats, who, in this telling, drove the duly elected Republican out of office.

Note: Almost all local GOP officials and officeholders called for Santos to resign, and the vote to expel him from Congress was a rare bipartisan success.

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