For the political junkies who aren’t getting enough drama from the Democratic or Republican presidential primaries right now, consider turning the channel to the Feb. 13 special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District.
That’s where voters will choose a replacement for the fabulist ex-Rep. George Santos, he of the Jew-ish backstory and fake Wall Street gigs and various alleged campaign finance schemes, all of which culminated in expulsion from Congress last year. More Cameo awaits. But for Santos’ former constituents, the decision is now between former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi and Republican-backed contender Mazi Melesa Pilip, who polling?suggests are separated by single digits.
The race so far has been dominated by national issues, making it a key testing ground for party messaging ahead of the 2024 general election. That was certainly the case Thursday in Bethpage, Long Island, where the candidates met for the sole debate of the abbreviated campaign, aired by News 12. Here are three takeaways from this quirky New York contest that may foreshadow the themes of 2024.
Anyone who has turned on a TV in the New York metropolitan area in the last month has heard ads about the migrant crisis and its connection to Suozzi or Pilip. It’s a national issue with local implications — New York City is currently sheltering tens of thousands of recent migrants, some near the Queens-Nassau County border that this district straddles.
Pilip, who herself is an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant, attempted to tie her opponent to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, suggesting that she would keep building a border wall, increase the number of border agents, and “make sure that we have tightened” the procedure for those seeking asylum.
Suozzi, who served three terms in the House before leaving to try a run for New York governor, pointed to GOP stonewalling on bipartisan immigration legislation, effectively allowing the current border situation to continue. But this is a more complex argument than “close the border,” as Pilip put it, and it’s something that Democrats are already struggling with in races around the country: Polling shows that immigration is top of mind once again.
Some of the debate’s tensest moments concerned abortion, an issue Democrats are hoping will fuel victories as it did across the country during the 2022 midterms, months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Pilip, an Orthodox Jewish mother of seven and registered Democrat who is running on the Republican line (more common than you’d think in Long Island politics), has attempted to chart a middle path on abortion in deep-blue New York, declining to support a national ban and saying on the debate stage that it’s “a personal decision, a personal choice,” and that she wouldn’t “do anything to risk women’s health care.”
Suozzi, who has been?endorsed?by abortion rights advocates, pressed Pilip unsuccessfully for more detail on this issue, which was not the same driving force locally as it was nationally in 2022, perhaps due to New York’s abortion protections that weren’t disrupted by the Supreme Court’s decision.?His ability to energize voters on reproductive rights this time around would be a measure of the issue’s potency beyond the midterms.
It’s possible that the Israel-Hamas conflict is a hotter topic in this district than almost anywhere else in the country, given the size of the Jewish community in this swath of suburban Nassau County and a snippet of Queens. Strikingly, both candidates appeared together last month in an event calling for the release of Israeli hostages, including an Israeli soldier raised on Long Island. “This is an issue that should rise above politics,” Suozzi said, citing his support for federal dollars going to Israel.
Pilip, who appeared on camera wearing a prominent Star of David necklace, pointed to her personal connection to the conflict: She is a former soldier in the Israel Defense Forces and said she has nephews fighting, and that “we need to hold accountable Hamas.”
Little divides the candidates on this subject, which is true for many mainstream elected Democrats and Republicans nationwide, though that’s unlikely to stop the ads from coming this fall about the Democratic Socialists of America and pro-Palestine protests.
The looming ghost of cons past
The topic of the last honorable representative of New York’s 3rd was of course unavoidable. Pilip called Santos’ brief political career “frustrating” and noted that the Republican Party did much more research into her background than it did into his: “My party vetted me with three strong firms,” she said.
Suozzi was unsurprisingly more eager to bring up Santos, whom he defeated in a 2020 congressional run. Back then, Santos was a long-shot candidate and Suozzi didn’t light into him too much — Santos once said on a podcast that his old foe did not “sling mud” at him. During the debate, Suozzi seemed eager to tie his current opponent to Santos, painting the Democratic side as one of reasonable pragmatism and the Republican cohort as extreme — a pattern that we will certainly see again between Biden and Donald Trump as we get closer to November.
Among Suozzi’s Santos jokes was his observation that one Pilip claim was “about as believable as you being a member of George Santos’ volleyball team.” (In case you forgot, Santos claimed he was a champion and had to get sports-related knee replacement.)
Suozzi also suggested that the district, and perhaps the world, was ready to move on. It’s true that the political world is turning to new congressional elections and a bitter presidential race, defined by sweeping nationalized issues. No more fun and games, in other words. “Everybody’s sick of George Santos,” Suozzi said.