I represented the region for 16 years in Congress. Until recently, it was a sleepy, purple suburb, far removed from the frenzy of American politics. Most of my town meetings required the incentive of free bagels and coffee to draw a crowd. Ideological passions existed, but most voters were concerned about taxes and traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
If you want a model suburban congressional district that both parties must win in November, look no further than New York’s 3rd Congressional District on Long Island, where a special election today will replace George Santos, forced out.
In recent years, the neighborhood has been placed in the political spotlight. In 2022, he elected Santos, who lied, conspired and maneuvered his way into Congress. If my old district should be rewarded for anything, it’s that we managed to elect a congressman who brought Republicans and Democrats together in a rare bipartisan act to throw him out. Now, the special election to replace him takes place when the Speaker of the House has a very slim majority of seven votes. The national stakes couldn’t be higher for an electorate that yawns over national politics.
Having chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years, I know firsthand that a six-week special election presents a herculean challenge for a candidate: raising money, getting exposure, and developing the ground game needed to win . And the two parties have taken radically different approaches to selecting their candidates.
Democrats chose former Rep. Tom Suozzi, my successor in Congress, who decided to challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul in the 2022 primary rather than run for re-election to the House. Normally, the rules of politics state that when you go up against your party leader and you lose, it’s over. You can’t even run for precinct captain. But in a remarkable show of urgency by national Democrats to produce a well-funded, well-known candidate; an act of magnanimity on the part of Governor Hochul; and no lack of sass on Suozzi’s part, he overcame this perceived disloyalty to get the nod.
Suozzi is, at least on paper, the ideal candidate for a condensed special election. He has been in the spotlight since the early 1990s. He has served as mayor of the town of Glen Cove, Nassau County executive and a member of Congress. He launched the special election with high profile, proven fundraising and political organizing.
Meanwhile, the GOP selected Mazi Melesa Pilip, a political newcomer with just two years of experience in the Nassau County Legislature. Pilip has an interesting story to tell voters, as an Ethiopian-born mother of seven and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. But unlike Suozzi, she is unknown, has not been tested and has made repeated comments that call into question her knowledge of the government. A recent Newsday editorial revealed that Pilip lacked knowledge of Nassau County’s basic government institutions and was “accompanied to campaign events by a Republican Party validator” who helps “answer her questions “.
Because of Pilip’s inexperience, the Republican Party strategically silenced her with minimal campaign appearances and few debates. Where Santos was a fabulist, Pilip seems to be a ghost. But the strategy can work.
While the district historically favors Democrats, Republicans have consistently outperformed in recent cycles. Democrats recently won a special election in the suburbs, driven by abortion and unease over the MAGA movement, but something is wrong on Long Island. President Biden won Nassau County by 10 points in 2020, but Governor Hochul lost it by 10 points just two years later.
What changed? The narrative fueling voter unease on Long Island is one of crime and immigration. The progressive Democratic message several years ago to defund the police and introduce cashless bail rattled an electorate that values order in the suburbs and is home to many residents who commute to New York for their work. And recent headlines have been dominated by busloads of immigrants arriving in New York. Republicans pilloried Democrats on these issues, and now they’re hammering Suozzi with the same strategy.
During a debate during the 2022 gubernatorial primary, Suozzi mentioned that he “kicked ICE out of Nassau” while serving as county executive. Republicans pounced on that comment and tried to frame Suozzi as a liberal-supporting, open-border sanctuary city. This is not the case, but as the political saying goes, “once you have to explain, don’t bother.”
Suozzi’s response was a combination of attack and defense. Her campaign and the DCCC remind us that Pilip is running on a national party platform banning abortion. (Pilip calls himself pro-life but not in favor of a nationwide ban.) At the same time, my mailbox has been filled with reminders from the Suozzi campaign that he worked with Republicans to fix the border. One notable ad features a photo of him with former Rep. Peter King, whose centrist policies have veered further to the right on immigration and policing issues, raising eyebrows among some Democrats but likely reassuring many moderate voters.
Ultimately, this election will come down to turnout. It’s a challenge getting voters to the polls during a special election, especially if it takes place in mid-February. Democrats have an advantage in the air war (money, trading time, resources and notoriety), but Republicans are counting on a legendary turnout operation to win it on the ground.
When I talk to Republican leaders, they exude Churchillian confidence about their turnout operation. Democrats, meanwhile, predict that Trump’s unpopularity, the shadow of George Santos and Republican extremism on abortion will push moderate voters to reject the Republican Party.
Whatever the outcome, Democrats and Republicans will race to parse the electoral tea leaves.
The problem with special elections is that they tend to produce more pundits than voters. Having witnessed my share of these elections while serving as DCCC president, I know that they detect openings, not finals. Although many studies indicate that special elections can serve as precursors to future elections, particularly if the district changes parties, the picture is not entirely clear.
Ultimately, the special election won’t reflect the overall mood of the country, but it will reveal the pulse of must-win suburban districts in November. And judging by a recent poll showing that Suozzi’s lead over Pilip is within the margin of error, it’s going to be close.
Steve Israel represented New York in the United States House of Representatives for eight terms and served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. @RepSteveIsrael.
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