Why the election to replace George Santos is so competitive

New York's 3rd District could flip from red to blue.

February 12, 2024, 3:02 PM

The circumstances that led to a vacant congressional seat in Long Island were special enough on their own. After doing everything from lying about virtually his entire resume to yelling at protesters about international politics while carrying a baby that he claimed was "not yet" his through the halls of Congress, former Republican Rep. George Santos in December became just the sixth representative in history to be expelled from Congress. But it's not the scandal-plagued former congressman that makes the special election to replace him so special; it's the district itself.

Strategists from both sides of the political aisle expect the New York 3rd District special election, which takes place Tuesday, to be a nail-biter. It is the rare special election to take place in a swing district: The seat has an Inside Elections Baseline — a measure of the average partisanship of congressional districts — of only D+5. Both parties have nominated strong candidates: Democrats chose former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represented the district from 2017 to 2023 before leaving it to run for governor on a moderate, crime-focused platform. Meanwhile, Republicans have nominated Mazi Pilip, a Nassau County legislator who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and has put immigration at the forefront of her campaign. And the two most recent public polls of the race, from Siena College/Newsday and Emerson College/The Hill/WPIX-TV, both showed Suozzi in the lead by only 4 percentage points.

But just because the race is competitive doesn't mean it is a bellwether for November. The district is on Long Island, which has a unique political identity. Long Island congressional districts don't fall into the same category as other districts full of wealthy, white, college-educated voters, which have largely moved from red to blue over the last decade. Instead, Long Island has gravitated toward Republicans in recent years, thanks to a combination of voters concerned about immigration and crime and voters who have a soft spot for the Republican Party from before former President Donald Trump came on the scene.

Under the current congressional map, President Joe Biden would have carried New York's 3rd District by 8 points. Other recent election results similarly paint a picture of a Democratic-leaning district. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried the district by 5 points in 2016, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand carried it by 17 points in 2018. Before Santos won in 2022, Suozzi won three terms in the district, including defeating Santos in 2020 by double digits. Prior to Suozzi, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Steve Israel, held the seat.

But Santos's victory in 2022 didn't come out of the blue. Long Island has long been a stronghold for Republicans in the state legislature. During the first half of the 2010s, Republicans dominated Long Island's state Senate representation, its members dubbed "the Long Island Nine." Even today, although Democrats have made in-roads, Republicans still make up most of the island's state Senate and Assembly representation.

In addition, more recently, Long Island voters — many of whom are members of law enforcement — have been turned off by state Democrats' efforts to pass criminal justice reform and cashless bail. And when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started busing migrants from the southern border to New York City in 2022, Long Island voters were reading the headlines. "That really roiled suburban voters in [the 3rd District], who like their suburban order," said Israel.

Even before the migrant crisis, backlash to liberal policies on crime helped contribute to massive Republican wins in local elections in the 3rd District's anchor, Nassau County. In 2021, Republicans ousted the Democratic Nassau County executive and won the Nassau County district attorney's race — the first time the Republican Party had full control of county leadership in nearly 20 years, according to the local ABC affiliate. In neighboring Suffolk County, a Republican ousted the Democratic district attorney, and Democrats lost their majority on the county council.

And in 2022, even as Republicans underperformed expectations across the country, they had a successful midterm election in New York. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul faced a tough challenge from Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, who won over more than a few Democrats and independents by campaigning hard on crime and immigration. While he lost the governorship, Zeldin helped Republicans flip six congressional seats that Biden had carried two years prior, including three on Long Island. In the 4th District, Anthony D'Esposito won the race for retired Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice's open seat. On the eastern tip of the island, Republican Nick LaLota replaced Zeldin. And Zeldin carried the 3rd District by 12 points, paving the way for Santos's win.

The hits kept on coming for Democrats in 2023: A Republican won the Suffolk County Executive seat for the first time in two decades. So you can understand why Democrats aren't taking 2024 for granted.

"Think about the Long Island electorate as a garden," Israel said. "The roots are Republican, but it tends to bloom Democratic. But that changed when the environment changed, as a result of issues like defunding the police and cashless bail, crime and immigration."

There's some reason for optimism for Democrats in the polling, though (beyond the simple fact that Suozzi leads). In the Siena College poll, Suozzi led Pilip by 4 points despite the sample of likely voters saying they favored Trump over Biden in the 2024 general election, 47 percent to 42 percent. That demonstrates how Suozzi might be able to use his moderate bona fides to pull out a win — without meaning much for Biden or national Democrats.

It might, however, provide a roadmap for other Democrats to win on Long Island — which could go a long way toward determining control of the House. LaLota and D'Esposito are both vulnerable in 2024, and with Democrats only roughly five seats short of a majority, flipping these three seats could get Democrats more than half of the way there.

On the other hand, no Republican representative in New York can feel all that safe; the Democratic-led legislature will likely redraw the state's congressional map for the 2024 election. In some ways, that makes the special election a low-stakes way to test general election messages in a district that won't even exist in its current form by the end of the year. And the lessons that each party takes from the result of the race are likely to inform strategic decisions in November.

However, it still seems like a lot of money and effort for a term in Congress that will expire in just a few months. Israel put it this way: "The most expensive short-term rental of a congressional district I've ever seen in my life."