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Opinion: What the special election to fill George Santos’ seat will reveal about 2024

December 24, 2023

Publication: CNN Opinion

By: Lawrence C. Levy

George Santos, she is not.

After months of trying to minimize the damage of twice nominating Santos as their congressional candidate, Long Island Republican leaders have found a candidate to fill his swing suburban seat.

Unlike the serial fabulist Santos, who was expelled from the House on December 1 after a damning House Ethics Committee report and a slew of of federal charges, Mazi Melesa Pilip appears to have an appealing and real resume — as does her well-regarded Democratic opponent, Thomas Suozzi.

That sets up a fast and furious special election on February 13 that could preview the parties’ standing among suburbanites — the nation’s most impactful voting group — ahead of the November 2024 election, when every House seat will be up for grabs.

The sprint in New York’s 3rd congressional district has about everything a moderate suburbanite could want: two strong candidates, each with a history of leaning across the aisle to appeal to voters.

Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, is an Ethiopian-born Orthodox Jew who was among 14,000 Ethiopians rescued by the Israeli Defense Forces in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon. She grew up in Israel and served in the IDF before immigrating to the US. While Pilip, a mother of seven, is actually registered as a Democrat, she has twice won races for the county legislature on the Republican Party line.

Suozzi, for his part, is hardly a political lightweight. As the scion of a local Democratic dynasty, he has won races for a small city mayorship, chief executive of a major county and the House seat representing New York’s 3rd congressional district before giving it up in 2022 to launch an unsuccessful bid for governor. (Earlier this month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who beat Suozzi in 2022 despite his scorched-earth campaign, asked for a private meeting in Albany — nearly 200 miles from Long Island — before she agreed not to block his nomination.)

As a moderate at odds with his party’s progressive tilt, Suozzi has carved out a centrist position in every role he has occupied. He is largely sticking to that strategy in this race, buoyed by endorsements from local mayors from both parties.

Given that Republicans could lose their slim majority in the House in 2024 — and that each party would like to snag an early win to generate at least the perception of momentum going into the general election — this race could be a tight one that ends up costing tens of millions of dollars.

The true significance of the special election, however, is the ability it gives both parties to try out the messages, strategies and tactics that could win over swing suburbanites. Whether it’s bashing the gridlock in Congress, tying their opponents to unpopular presidential contenders, fighting over abortion access, or presenting differing visions of the US’ role in the Israel-Hamas war, the messages that resonate most with these voters will likely be repeated across the country ahead of November 2024.

For decades, “purple” suburbanites have determined which party gets not only the gavels in Congress but also the keys to the White House. Their signature political trait is a distrust of extremism, in both style and substance, by either side.

While Democrats have fared well in suburban areas across the country since 2020, Long Island has been a rare exception. Despite failing to generate the expected red wave in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans saw a red tsunami on Long Island.

Given the presidential election next year, it’s likely that Democrats will turn out in far greater numbers in 2024 than they did in 2022, which should give the party a fair chance at overcoming Republican strengths: generating high voter turnout and pushing compelling messaging on crime, housing and taxes.

Based on early comments, a leading strategy in this special election will be to cast the opponent as an extremist. While such attacks thus far have not come from the candidates themselves, it’s notable that Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was quick to call Pilip “a MAGA extremist.”  New York Republicans, on the other hand, have tried to link Suozzi to the progressive House “squad” that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Will Pilip succeed in trashing Suozzi’s moderate bona fides by tying him, however inaccurately, to left-wing state and city politicians whose policies have turned off suburbanites? Can she tarnish Suozzi by linking him to Biden, whose approval ratings have remained dangerously low? Or by exploiting the perception that violent crime is rising and the economy is sinking, when the reality is that — at least in this relatively safe and prosperous suburb — they are not?

Pilip has not held any office higher than county legislator. Thus, aside from the Israel-Hamas war, she has taken few publicized positions on hot button national issues that energize voters. And, until a few days ago, that included one of the hottest of them all – abortion. When pressed by reporters, Pilip tried to position herself as a relative moderate within her party, saying that she opposed a national ban on abortion, despite being “pro-life.”

But that framing left a lot of unanswered questions on other abortion-related issues – such as Republican opposition to Medicaid-funded abortions and the use of medication to terminate pregnancies. Can Suozzi exploit that to hurt Pilip, especially among some Republican women who don’t agree with their party leaders on limiting abortion rights in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dodd decision overturning Roe v. Wade?

Does the public’s general unfamiliarity with Pilip’s political stances make it easier to blunt her compelling biography and define her as a “MAGA extremist”? Can Suozzi persuade voters that Pilip is out of step with moderate suburban sensibilities – especially after she refused to say whether she had voted for the unpopular Trump but would vote for him if he were the party’s nominee? Can Suozzi taint Pilip by reminding voters that, before repudiating him, Mazi had campaigned alongside Santos and said that he was an “amazing” friend?

And then, there’s the ultimate divisive issue: the Israel-Hamas war. Pilip has been an outspoken supporter of Israel’s crushing response to Hamas’ attack on October 7 — a position that is likely to help her with the relatively large number of fellow Orthodox Jews in the district. But will it hurt her with Muslim voters, whose presence is growing in the district?

The war is more of a minefield for Suozzi, as well as other suburban Democrats. Suozzi continues to be a staunch supporter of Israel, and has long-established ties with the Jewish community. But his party is showing signs of fracturing over the war. How will Suozzi fend off expected efforts to link him to progressive Democrats, who are sympathetic to the Palestinians? How will he square things with young voters and Muslims, who have supported Democrats in recent years but might stay home due to the strong pro-Israel stance he and Biden have expressed?

The Santos drama has already focused unusually high national interest in the district. And given the issues and more, politicos will be looking to New York’s 3rd district for clues on how to win competitive suburban races across the country in November.

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