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Democrats hopeful in special election for Santos’s House seat

January 17, 2024

Publication: The Hill

By: Jared Gans

Associated Press/Bebeto Matthews
Associated Press/Bebeto Matthews

Democrats are hoping to take back former Rep. George Santos’s (R) House seat in a special election next month — even if Santos isn’t there to defend it.

The party has turned to a well-known face in former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) to run in the district, and while the party probably had a better chance to win the seat back from Republicans with the scandal-marred Santos running, Democrats still like their chances.

How Democrats fare in the Feb. 13 contest could signal how strong the party will be in the fall, when its efforts to flip the lower chamber hinge largely on New York.

“In Tom Suozzi, Democrats have someone who is extremely well-known, highly respected and has sky-high name recognition in the district he has represented, close to all of it, for years,” said New York Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.

New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which Suozzi represented for six years, has likely been on Democrats’ radar to take back since Santos was elected to the seat in 2022. The district, located on the western side of Long Island, is one of 18 districts nationwide with Republican representatives that would have voted for President Biden in the 2020 presidential election under its current lines.

This made Santos’s victory in 2022 a bit of an upset when he won by 7 points. Suozzi had decided not to run for reelection to his House seat and instead seek the Democratic nomination for governor, which he lost to the eventual winner, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).

Several of the Biden-district Republicans represent districts in New York, setting the state up to be key to either party winning the House in November.

Santos was quickly embroiled in controversy before he took office following numerous reports he had made false claims about much of his personal, educational and professional background. He was indicted on a range of charges, including wire fraud and money laundering, and eventually expelled from his seat last month after an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Santos was defiant against calls for his resignation for months and initially planned to run for reelection to his seat. Given his widespread unpopularity with members of both parties, Democrats likely would have had the advantage with Santos as the Republican nominee again in 2024.

The Cook Political Report had rated the race as “lean Democrat” for months, but with Santos out, Cook and other nonpartisan election analyzers consider the race a “toss-up.”

But Democrats say they still have an advantage with the match-up of Suozzi against Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator who has been a registered Democrat. They argue that even though it’s a swing district, the party has an advantage in numbers given Biden’s win there in 2020.

Democrats also said national Republicans not calling for Santos to resign for months tarnished their reputation in the district.

New York Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said he believes the district was “significantly concerned” about the negative attention that Santos brought to himself and is eager to move on from it. The other three districts that make up Long Island are all represented by Republicans, but he said the 3rd District has “strong” Democratic representation and Suozzi was a well-regarded member.

But Smikle noted that polls showed members of both parties overwhelmingly wanted Santos to resign, so a stronger campaign message for Democrats would be to focus on policy issues that suburban voters care about rather than Santos himself.

“I do think that the voters will look not just at the special election but beyond that,” he said, noting that the seat will be up for election again in November along with all other races throughout the country.

National Democrats have gone on the attack after Pilip since she was chosen as the GOP nominee, seeking to tie her to an extreme wing of the Republican Party. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee argued in an ad this month that Pilip was “hand-picked” by “MAGA Republicans” in the House.

Another ad released Wednesday accuses her of dodging questions about Republicans’ “extreme” agenda of banning abortion and making cuts to Social Security.

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