Why the stakes look 'quite high' in the battle to win George Santos' seat in New York

"It is also a bellwether for the 2024 election," one political observer said.

February 9, 2024, 12:25 PM

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. -- The battle on Long Island to fill the seat left vacant by disgraced Rep. George Santos' expulsion involves millions of dollars, the attention of national groups and the return of notable political players -- a reflection of how this off-cycle special election isn't passing by with little fanfare.

Instead, the race has come to be seen by some Democrats as a high-stakes litmus test of their electability in the very areas where they'll need to win in November if they want to retake Congress.

Yet as Democrats work to flip back New York's 3rd Congressional District and Republicans work to move past Santos' scandal, the outcome on Tuesday is far from certain.

In this race -- where the local parties hand-picked candidates without any primary, because it's a special election -- former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represented a version of the same district for three terms, faces Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born former Israeli army soldier and current county legislator.

A poll released Thursday from Newsday and Siena College showed the candidates effectively even: 48% of likely voters in the district said they'd vote for Suozzi, while 44% indicated they'd go for Pilip -- a result within the poll's margin of error.

Santos' dramatic, much-covered downfall is essentially a non-factor here, rarely mentioned on the stump even as, in the last few weeks, Democrats looked to tie him more directly to Pilip. He has told CNN he doesn't plan to vote.

Instead, candidates, their allies and observers point to a web of issues that they say are shaping the race and how the candidates pitch themselves -- on the border and public safety, on Israel, on abortion and more. Those are some of the same issues that could also shape voters across the country come November, experts said.

"The stakes are quite high ... it is a divided electorate and it will likely be very close," Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which is supporting Suozzi's bid, told ABC News.

PHOTO: In this Dec. 1, 2023, file photo, Rep. George Santos walks from his office to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In this Dec. 1, 2023, file photo, Rep. George Santos walks from his office to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

'A warning sign for Democrats'?

Democrats earn a boon if Suozzi wins the election: Not only would that add to the party's list of local wins, despite President Joe Biden's unpopularity, it would weaken Republicans' razor-thin hold on the House, where they currently have only a four-vote majority, giving them persistent problems in passing legislation.

Soifer said it's not just about Suozzi retaking his old seat, which Democrats lost in 2022. "To increase Democrats' House numbers by one in advance of November ... and it is also a bellwether for the 2024 election -- if we can flip this seat, it bodes well for Democrats in November," she said.

Suozzi, for his part, feels this -- and knows that he's up against a constituency that feels like it's lurched back to the right. In an interview with ABC News, he conceded that a loss come election night would "of course" be a bad omen for his party's 2024 prospects. He's attempting to blunt Republican organizational inroads by growing his grassroots support and underscoring his moderate record -- even to a fault.

"I think my whole campaign is a warning sign for Democrats," he insisted. "I've always been somebody who has been battling with my own party. I've always been a centrist ... and they asked me to run. Why? Because they know my message is what we need to be talking about."

"Crime and immigration and taxes is not a Republican message. It's an American message," Suozzi said. "And Democrats as well as Republicans need to be addressing these issues."

He said that if he wins, he has a blunt message for his colleagues in Washington, who faced unexpected defeats in historically Democratic areas in California and New York in 2022, ensuring Republicans won the House.

"Wake up," he said.

PHOTO: Peacocks walk around signs of support for Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip outside the Middleridge Cottage, on Feb. 5, 2024, in Jericho, N.Y.
Peacocks walk around signs of support for Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip outside the Middleridge Cottage, on Feb. 5, 2024, in Jericho, N.Y.
Brittainy Newman/AP

As for his chances next week, Suozzi said he has high hopes and feels "great," expecting a win in what he thinks will nonetheless be a "very close race."

"People are sick and tired of the partisan finger-pointing. They're sick of the far left and they're sick of the far right, they want people who are willing to work across party lines to actually get stuff done," he said, adding, "That's what I've always been about. And people know that."

Veteran New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf is less confident.

"In any other circumstance, he would have been a shoo-in," Sheinkopf said of Suozzi. "But the environment's entirely different. You're operating in an environment that doesn't help Democrats overall out in the suburbs -- the migrants, chaos, the economic conditions of the country, the cost of the pump, which has gone down -- but people don't see it that way. And they gotta blame somebody."

Sheinkopf's gut feeling is that Pilip edges Suozzi out, which, if true, he thinks would be a "tremendous setback" for Democrats.

Pilip, on her end, has faced criticism from some in and outside her district for being a relatively unknown county legislator with an unclear record on many issues and for running fewer campaign events in the weeks leading up to the election.

She is also a registered Democrat which, despite her publicly stated politics, has raised some concerns among conservatives.

Suozzi and his allies have accused Pilip of a "basement campaign," borrowing an attack line Donald Trump used on then-candidate Joe Biden during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

But speaking to ABC News on Wednesday, Pilip seemed unfazed and sounded optimistic about high early turnout, calling attention to the support she said she has been receiving on the ground.

"So many people are doing so much work and the support, the energy, the love, that I'm receiving every single day it is unbelievable, empowering," she said. "It's just giving me the motivation to keep going. We're going to win."

Border becomes a flashpoint

One ad supporting Pilip, funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee, blares to viewers that President Biden is to blame for high numbers of illegal immigration at the southern border: "Under Biden, a record invasion at our border!" And the ad ties Suozzi to Biden, quoting Suozzi's 2021 remarks that "I support the president's agenda 100%," which he said in an interview related to taxes.

Sheinkopf, the strategist, said the ad was a revealing attack both about voter concerns and where Republicans think they can gain advantage.

"The ads tell you what the story is: It's migrants, it's the fear of crime that's attached to migrants," Sheinkopf said.

The issue has become a particular flashpoint in New York City, which has taken in tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.

Suozzi has emphasized his support of heightened security at the border while also calling for bipartisan agreement on how to handle immigration.

Pilip frames challenges at the border and with illegal immigration into the U.S. as a result of policies fronted by both Biden and Suozzi. "I'm running for Congress to secure the border and clean up the sanctuary cities mess that Tom Suozzi and Joe Biden have created," she said at a news conference outside of a migrant shelter in Queens on Wednesday.

She has also lambasted the bipartisan package proposed in the Senate that would majorly overhaul immigration policy and tighten border restrictions while providing aid to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine. On Wednesday, she received an endorsement from the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents Border Patrol agents -- and that supports the Senate deal.

The union's president, Brandon Judd, told reporters that Pilip "is able to build bridges" and has more latitude to reject the bill than the union.

PHOTO: Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip greets attendees at her fundraiser event hosted by the Nassau County Republican Committee, on Feb. 5, 2024, in Jericho, New York.
Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip greets attendees at her fundraiser event hosted by the Nassau County Republican Committee, on Feb. 5, 2024, in Jericho, New York.
Brittainy Newman/AP

Suozzi attacked Pilip for her take on the Senate agreement during their sole debate of the race, on Thursday, painting her as a solution-less candidate.

"She has no solutions whatsoever. Just 'there's a problem, there's a problem. Oh, by the way, it's a really big problem.' That's not enough. That's not how you govern," Suozzi said at the debate, organized by News 12 Long Island.

Pilip shot back and was met with immediate applause, telling Suozzi that he "created this issue."

Pilip also has argued that the issue of the border could turn out a large coalition for her. "More Republicans, more independents -- even for some, some big number of Democrats -- will come out to vote for me" because of how much they care about the issue, she told ABC News.

But immigration becoming a key issue also holds some risks for Republicans if they lose because it would suggest that strategy had failed, said Lawrence Levy at Hofstra University on Long Island.

"The reality would be that their efforts to localize the national and international immigration issue didn't succeed and might not have the power they're hoping for in swing suburban areas around the country," Levy, the executive dean of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies, told ABC News

On the debate stage, Suozzi sought to pin Pilip down on abortion access, suggesting she was being intentionally ambiguous in order to win over voters.

While she described herself as "pro-life," she also said she opposes a national ban and maintained that "I'm not going to force my own belief on any woman."

Suozzi has been backed by abortion rights supporters.

National fundraising and attention

Outside groups have poured barrel loads of money into the district.

Republicans spent at least $3 million on ads in the district while Democrats emptied their pockets even more -- to the tune of at least $8.9 million, according to political advertising tracker AdImpact. And a super PAC supporting Pilip has paid for a $1.5 million Suozzi attack ad to play during the Super Bowl, just two days before the election.

Republican Rep. Anthony D'Esposito joined Pilip at a rally in Franklin Square on Wednesday evening, acknowledging in an interview with ABC News that Democrats have invested far more money in the race; but he cited the "ground game" of the local party -- staff volunteers knocking on doors and calling up potential voters in droves -- as reason for confidence.

"I think what makes the difference is what's in this room and rooms like this all over the district," D'Esposito said. "People are invested ... we're at war, and we all are suited up and ready to fight."

(Suozzi told ABC News his own ground game is "organic and very intense.")

D'Esposito is familiar with the dynamics of eking out a win in a swing seat: He was elected by razor-thin margins in the 4th Congressional District's 2022 race, an area of Long Island that Biden won by double digits 2020.

During Wednesday's rally, D'Esposito cast the upcoming contest as a clash between two Joes, one national and one local: "If there's anywhere in this country that we can win a special election in a district that Joe Biden won in 2020 ... it's right here in Nassau County, because we have [Nassau Republican Chair] Joe Cairo."

The Jewish vote could be critical

Santos' old district boasts a large Jewish community, of which Pilip is a member. The Jewish Democratic Council of America has estimated that about 11% of "the voting population" in the district are Jewish.

Both the JDCA's affiliated PAC and the political action committees linked to a similar Republican group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, have spent tens of thousands of dollars in advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts on the race between Suozi and Pilip, according to leaders from each group.

Combating antisemitism and supporting Israel were already top of mind for many of those Jewish voters in the district, similar to other Jewish communities around the country, even before Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel sparked an ongoing war in the Middle East.

Suozzi and Pilip have called for combating antisemitism and supporting Israel during its war with Hamas, and both support proposed stand-alone aid packages to Israel. They've shown some unity on the campaign trail: Newsday reported that they appeared together in support of a local family whose son was taken hostage from Israel on Oct. 7.

But in other ways, Israel and the Hamas war have become campaign issues.

PHOTO: Tom Suozzi speaks at a campaign rally on Feb. 4, 2024, in Floral Park, New York.
Tom Suozzi speaks at a campaign rally on Feb. 4, 2024, in Floral Park, New York.
Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Pilip, who points to her Israeli background and family, has claimed that Suozzi is allied with Democratic members of Congress who want to reevaluate the U.S.'s support of Israel in light of the high death toll.

Suozzi's supporters, in response, point to his pro-Israel voting record in Congress and his trip to Israel after Oct. 7.

Sheinkopf, the veteran state Democratic strategist, warned against not paying attention to current events in Israel and Gaza when it comes to the Long Island election. "We forget that all elections are colored to some extent by events that are going on at the moment," he said.

Suozzi faces further headwinds that echo the broader schism within his party. Younger and more progressive voters have split with President Joe Biden's administration over his continued support of Israel's campaign against Hamas despite tens of thousands of people being killed in Gaza.

When asked by ABC News about his message to Muslim and Arab American voters who disagree with him on Israel, Suozzi pointed to his votes while in office and his support of the local Muslim community as a county legislator after Sept. 11, 2001.

"While I remain unequivocally pro-Israel and support of Israel in this conflict that they're facing right now, the Muslim community knows me very, very well and knows that I will always fight on their behalf," Suozzi said.

Levy, the political expert, said that Suozzi has a complex challenge ahead, keeping together the traditional Jewish Democratic voters and those who are not aligned with him on Israel.

It's another bellwether for the year ahead, he said: "It's the same complexity that Democrats in a lot of places are gonna face. ... [It] could determine who wins; not just here, but in other places around the country."