What Tom Suozzi’s Win Means for Democrats

Tom Suozzi’s victory in yesterday’s special House election on Long Island brings Democrats one seat closer to recapturing the majority they lost two years ago. But in the run-up to Election Day, party leaders were leery about making too much of the closely watched contest—win or lose.

“This is a local race,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told me when I asked what a Suozzi win would say about the Democrats’ chances in November. Jeffries had just finished rallying a crowd of a few hundred health-care workers on the first day of early voting. The Brooklyn Democrat stands to become House speaker if the party can pick up another four seats later this year. His very presence in Suozzi’s district belied his attempt to downplay its significance.

This was as national as a contest for a single House seat gets. Democrats poured millions of dollars into the compressed campaign brought about by the expulsion in December of Representative George Santos, the Republican who’d won this swing seat after selling voters on an invented life story. The election became a test case for the political salience of the GOP’s attacks on President Joe Biden’s handling of immigration and the influx of migrants over the southern border. Suozzi’s opponent, Mazi Pilip, used nearly all her campaign ads to tie him to Biden’s border policies. Suozzi, meanwhile, took a firmer stance on the border than many Democrats and assailed Mazi for opposing the bipartisan deal that Senate Republicans killed last week.

Suozzi’s message prevailed, and his victory could offer Democrats, including the beleaguered president, a road map for rebutting Republicans on immigration in battleground states and suburban districts this fall. Notably, Suozzi broke with Democrats who have waved off voter concerns about the border as a GOP-manufactured crisis; he called for higher spending to fortify the border and urged the deportation of migrants accused of assaulting New York City police officers.

Yesterday’s election drew outsize attention not only because it involved Santos’s old seat, but also because New York’s Third District is one Democrats will need if they want any hope of regaining the House majority. Biden carried the district by eight points in the 2020 election, but Santos won it by seven two years later. With about 93 percent of the votes counted last night, Suozzi was winning by nearly eight points.

His win narrows a Republican majority in the House, which has already been nearly impossible for Speaker Mike Johnson to govern. In a signal of just how vital the contest was, the House impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Mayorkas by a single vote hours before the New York polls closed. Had Republicans waited even a day longer, Suozzi’s vote might have saved Mayorkas the indignity. (His job is almost certainly safe; the Democratic-led Senate is expected to acquit him.)

Political prognosticators frequently warn against reading too much into special elections, which usually attract low turnout and have a mixed track record of predicting future contests. And this race was even more special than most: A snowstorm that dampened turnout made drawing national conclusions more difficult. As usual, Democratic voters were more likely than Republicans to vote early or by mail, leaving the GOP reliant on voters braving the weather on Election Day.

The election pitted two competing dynamics against each other. Democrats have recently overperformed in off-year and special elections across the country, benefiting from a political base of higher-educated, higher-income suburban voters who are more likely to turn out for lower-profile campaigns. But Republicans have bucked that trend on Long Island, capturing virtually all of the area’s congressional seats and local offices since 2020. Central to that comeback has been the resurgence of the Nassau County GOP, which for decades was known as one of the nation’s most formidable political machines. “We took the wind out of their sails for years,” Suozzi told me when I interviewed him recently, “but they’re back to being the strongest Republican machine in New York State.”

Suozzi has been a fixture in the district for the past three decades. A former Nassau county executive, he held the House seat for three terms before giving it up to mount an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2022. Then came Santos. In Pilip, Republicans picked as their nominee a little-known county legislator who ran a cautious campaign aimed at minimizing mistakes that could cost her votes. She agreed to just one debate a few days before the election, and when the Nassau County Republicans held their biggest rally of the campaign in late January, they scheduled it for a Saturday, when Pilip, who observes the Jewish Sabbath, could not attend.

Suozzi made himself far more accessible both to reporters and to voters, and he tried to define Pilip from the outset of the race as an extremist who would vote for a national abortion ban. With help from national Democratic campaign committees, Suozzi ran a huge number of negative ads about Pilip. The bombardment demonstrated that he wasn’t taking the race for granted. But it also carried the risk of giving Pilip visibility she wasn’t earning for herself. “She was basically unknown outside of Great Neck, which is a small area,” former Representative Peter King, a Republican who backed Pilip, told me. “Yet he was putting her picture up all over, and her name, And it’s an unusual name, so you remember.”

The strategy reflected Suozzi’s belief that regaining the seat would be tougher than most political observers assumed. Sure, Biden had carried the district easily in 2020 and voters likely regretted electing a GOP con artist two years later. But Democrats discovered last fall that Santos’s election did not seem to hurt other Republican candidates in local races on Long Island. And they knew that tying Pilip to Donald Trump, who remains popular in many parts of Long Island, would not be a sufficient tactic.

In the final weeks Suozzi leaned into his record as a bipartisan dealmaker, distancing himself from Biden while touting his work in helping found the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. Polls had given him a slim but not insurmountable lead. By the time the race was called last night, Suozzi’s initial reaction was simply relief. “Thank God,” he said with a long exhale as he addressed his supporters. Suozzi was speaking for himself after a campaign filled with bitter attacks, but he might as well have been speaking for his party, too.

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