The race to replace George Santos, explained

The race to replace George Santos, explained

George Santos is gone, and the race to replace him is a squeaker. | Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Is the situation really so dire for Democrats? Tuesday’s special election will give us a clue.

Even the race to replace George Santos in Congress is packed with drama.

The historic expulsion of Santos in December has prompted a rare special election in a swing congressional district that could prove a bellwether for November. A Democratic win in New York’s Third Congressional District, which Joe Biden won by 8 in 2020, would further shrink the already tenuous Republican majority and make it that much easier for Democrats to win back the House. A Republican hold, though, would be a huge boost for the GOP in the Long Island district located on the edge of New York City. After all, if they can survive George Santos’s scandals in the suburbs, perhaps they can survive Donald Trump’s too.

Who are the candidates?

Democrats are running perhaps their strongest possible candidate in the district: former Rep. Tom Suozzi. Suozzi represented the seat for three terms before giving it up in 2022 for a long-shot primary challenge to incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul. Suozzi is a longtime local politician who is well-liked and has cultivated a moderate image. In contrast, the Republican candidate, Mazi Pilip, is a relative newcomer to politics, albeit one with a sterling biography. A first-term member of the county legislature and a mother of seven, Pilip is an Ethiopian Jew who served in the Israel Defense Forces before immigrating to the United States with her husband. She has run a cautious, sheltered campaign, dodging reporters and holding relatively few public events.

What are the polls saying?

The limited public polling available shows that the race will be very close. A recent Newsday/Siena College poll shows Suozzi with a narrow 48 percent to 44 percent lead, and one from Emerson College gives the Democrat an almost identical 50 percent to 47 percent margin. Both polls show Biden being deeply unpopular in the district with an approval rating under 40 percent, and the Siena poll shows Donald Trump winning a head-to-head matchup against Biden by a 47 percent to 42 percent margin in the district.

Why is this close?

First of all, it’s close because no one particularly cares about George Santos anymore. The disgraced former Congress member hasn’t been a major issue in the election, and local Republicans have done a good job of distancing themselves from him. Most called for Santos to be ousted from Congress over a year ago, and now Santos is simply viewed by voters as an aberration.

But there are also dynamics on the ground in the district that make it different from other suburban areas where Democrats have surged in the Trump era. Instead, it was a place where Republicans had made significant gains in local elections in recent years. Steve Israel, who represented a similar district in Congress for eight terms before retiring in 2016, told Vox that “it had strongly over-performed for Republicans and underperformed for Democrats, even while Democrats have been winning handily in suburbs across the rest of the country.”

In particular, Israel pointed to anxiety about crime and migrants in a district that borders New York City. “When progressives talked about defunding the police and cashless bail, that pushes a lot of moderate suburban voters to Republicans,” said the former Democratic representative. “A lot of suburban voters are either cops or know cops.” Further, he pointed out that “a lot of suburban voters [in the district] commute to New York City. So you’ve had this perfect storm of headlines on crime. And then add to that more recent headlines about migrants being bused into Manhattan. And that has triggered anxieties in a population that is generally moderate, that is generally progressive on social issues.”

These trends were clear in 2022 when Republicans overwhelmingly carried the district. Lee Zeldin, the GOP nominee for governor, won it by double digits as Republicans picked up a number of House seats in New York while having a disappointing night elsewhere.

The other key factor keeping things close is the strength of the Nassau County Republican Party. It’s one of the last political machines in the country and has a strong get-out-the-vote operation that has been credited with helping Republicans win an array of local races in recent years and creating a strong bench in the district. There’s the belief among Republicans that, if the race is close, it will carry Pilip to victory, despite the fact that Suozzi and his allies have outspent her on TV and radio ads.

What does this mean nationally?

At the most basic level, a Democratic win on Tuesday reduces the Republican majority on Capitol Hill to just three votes. With House Speaker Mike Johnson struggling to keep his conference united, this will make his task that much harder as Congress faces yet another government funding deadline in March — let alone as he deals with contentious issues like aid to Ukraine and immigration reform. A Republican win would give him just a little extra breathing room and provide a morale boost.

Further, Democrats see their path to taking back the House as winning the 18 GOP congressional districts that Joe Biden won in 2020. This is one of them, and if they can’t pick up this one, it bodes ill for their prospects in the other 17 districts — particularly the six other districts in New York and New Jersey.

At a broader level, it becomes a referendum on how much the migrant crisis will be an issue in 2024. As unprecedented numbers of undocumented immigrants enter the United States, straining social services in cities across the country, the issue has become increasingly front of mind for voters. Republicans have harped on it throughout the campaign, forcing Suozzi to go on the defensive about it. With the special election being the only one held in a competitive seat before November’s presidential election, the result will be a key data point moving forward on the topic.

It will also be a measuring stick for how much abortion will continue to be a live political issue now that more than a year has passed since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Suozzi has run as a stalwart pro-abortion-rights candidate, while Pilip has broadly labeled herself as “pro-life” while dodging more detailed questions about how she would vote on Capitol Hill.

And as Democrats respectively stay focused on abortion and Republicans on immigration, the result on Tuesday will be a clear indicator which of the two issues voters are more focused on ahead of November.

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