What to know about the candidates for the special election to replace George Santos, and why it matters

The special election will occur on Feb. 13, 2024.

December 15, 2023, 3:01 PM

A high-profile special election is taking shape in New York's third congressional district, as both Republicans and Democrats hope to lay claim to a seat left vacant by ousted GOP Rep. George Santos in a battle over control of the House of Representatives.

The special election will occur on Feb. 13 of next year, a date set by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. In this case, the relevant county parties must appoint candidates rather than host primaries.

Democrats have chosen a recognizable figure in the form of former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who had represented the district for three terms before stepping away to pursue a failed bid for governor in 2022.

Meanwhile, New York Republicans on Friday announced Mazi Melesa Pilip, a former Israeli army soldier and current county legislator, as their candidate. This selection sets the stage for an intense showdown, with the Cook Political Report now categorizing the race as a "toss-up."

Republicans hope to hold the district with a unique candidate

"This is a very historic moment for me and my family. ... I am the example of the American dream. I have overcome many challenges in my life, and that's why I want to be the voice for our middle-class families," Pilip said at her campaign launch event on Friday, where she also spoke about supporting law enforcement, Israel and tax relief.

Pilip, an Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish mother of seven, was born in Ethiopia. In 1991, at the age of 12, she joined her family in evacuating to Israel during Operation Solomon, an Israeli operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel as they faced political and economic concerns. She served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for around two years, according to an interview she did with The Forward.

PHOTO: Mazi Melesa Pilips at her campaign launch on Dec. 15, 2023 in New York.
Mazi Melesa Pilips at her campaign launch on Dec. 15, 2023 in New York.

"She has a personal and political biography that's almost as fabulous as George Santos imagined his to be. She is, in some ways, nearly a unicorn for a diverse swing suburban district," Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island, told ABC News.

PHOTO: In this April 6, 2022 file photo, Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York State Governor candidate speaks during the 2022 National Action Network's Annual Convention at the Times Square Sheraton hotel in New York.
In this April 6, 2022 file photo, Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York State Governor candidate speaks during the 2022 National Action Network's Annual Convention at the Times Square Sheraton hotel in New York.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, FILE

Beyond her personal background, "she was the first Republican to win a race in what had been one of the major Democratic centers in Nassau County," Levy said, adding that when she won with more than a majority of the vote in November 2022, "she showed something that political leaders in suburban communities really value: an ability to get crossover votes, and to do it consistently and to begin to develop her own brand."

Pilip has already been endorsed by the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as key congressional GOP leaders like the conference's chairwoman, Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Her resume isn't without controversy. Pilip is a registered Democrat in New York -- despite being elected as a Republican member of the Nassau County Legislature -- according to Politico. This hasn't gone unnoticed by Santos, who admonished the Nassau County GOP in a video on his X page on Dec. 6 for floating Pilip as a possible pick.

Pilip has recently posted on social media about combating antisemitism, fundraising for the IDF and calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

Locally, her outspokenness on Israel could help her in the district, Levy said.

"There are a large number of Jewish people in the community that, as in most Jewish communities, they've pretty much come together to support Israel [amid the Israel-Hamas war]. She's been outspoken from the beginning, even as a county legislator who's supposed to deal with things at a much more granular, civic level," Levy told ABC News.

There is also a sizable Orthodox Jewish community in the district, and those voters have often supported Republicans in recent decades, Levy said.

But many of her positions on major issues, like abortion and gun laws, are vague or unknown, which Democrats are already seizing on.

"The people of Northeast Queens and Long Island deserve to know what Pilip stands for after Republicans completely tarnished voters' trust in New York's third district," Ellie Dougherty, the spokesperson for the DCCC, official campaign arm for Democrats in the House of Representatives, said in a statement.

Democrats hope to swing the district back

Suozzi had already announced a bid for the House seat he once held before Santos' ouster, stating his interest in the race ahead of being formally chosen by the county Democrats for the special election.

During his campaign launch in October, Suozzi admonished his Republican successor by name.

"The madness in Washington, D.C., and the absurdity of George Santos remaining in the United States Congress is obvious to everyone," Suozzi said.

"You know me. I've never sat on the sidelines. From the cost-of-living to immigration, crime, climate change, combating terrorism in the Middle East and globally and simply helping people, we need more common sense and compassion and less chaos and senseless fighting," he said.

Suozzi had vacated his seat to mount an unsuccessful bid for New York governor in 2022, losing in the Democratic primary to Hochul.

Levy said Suozzi likely won't suffer for having given up the seat for his gubernatorial primary bid.

"I think a lot of voters are going to think that he's still the congressman. As his name is so familiar, he's almost -- it's almost like running an incumbent campaign, in a sense," he said.

PHOTO: In a video posted to her Facebook account on Dec. 1, 2023,  New York's Nassau County Legislature Mazi Melesa Pilip speaks about supporting Israel.
In a video posted to her Facebook account on Dec. 1, 2023, New York's Nassau County Legislature Mazi Melesa Pilip speaks about supporting Israel.
Mazi Melesa Pilip - County Legislator District 10/Facebook

When it comes to the Israel-Hamas war, Suozzi could face some headwinds that Pilip does not.

Suozzi has a pro-Israel voting record in Congress and strong relationships with the Jewish community in the district, Levy said.

But "there is more of a schism within the party [about Israel], and that's kind of one of the bellwethers you look for; are there enough young Democrats in the community who are certainly not nearly as supportive of the government of Israel? They're most certainly not going to vote for the Republican in this case, but will they stay home? And which people?" Levy said.

How the race could affect national politics

Levy highlighted that in the 2022 election cycle, Republicans flipped House seats on Long Island -- even when the "expected red wave" of Republican wins did not materialize nationally in 2022 -- by campaigning on mostly local issues, including crime and the economy.

"That's how George Santos was elected. I can't imagine that a single person went into the voting booth and voted for him. ... I think they just said, 'I'm not backing Democrats because I'm mad at them' for whatever various reasons that they had," he added.

How the February election might preview the presidential contest later in the year and how much voters are motivated by their feelings for or against President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump remains an open question. Biden won the district in 2020, but his support has winnowed nationally.

But Levy noted that congressional district maps in New York remain in flux, meaning that those races -- and their national significance -- are even more difficult to predict.

"So this race is of most value to see how the parties do, what themes they use, what worked [and] what [doesn't], in preparation for November 2024. And that's basically it, because this district is going to be redrawn," Levy said.

The state's Court of Appeals recently mandated a bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw congressional maps that were set in place in 2022. New York Democrats are likely to seek approval for a map that aligns more favorably with their party, intending to shift a handful of swing districts away from the Republicans who flipped them during the midterm elections.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

Related Topics