Feb 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

New York special election: Santos replacement race tests 2024 themes

Left: Mazi Pilip, wearing a red jacket and white shirt, speaking into a microphone. Right: Tom Suozzi, wearing a dark blue jacket, light blue shirt and red tie.

Mazi Melesa Pilip and former Rep. Tom Suozzi. Photos: Howard Schnapp/Newsday RM and Yuki Iwamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Both Democrats and Republicans are casting themselves as the dark horse in the Tuesday special election to replace former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).

Why it matters: In addition to the near-term implications for Republicans' narrow House majority, the race will test both parties' messaging on the economy, immigration and abortion ahead of November's general election.

  • "This is kind of the opening act for what happens in November in districts like this that are going to determine control of the House," Democratic strategist Alyssa Cass told Axios.
  • Democratic former Rep. Tom Suozzi is facing off against Ethiopian-born Israeli Defense Forces veteran and Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, an untested Republican hand-picked by the county's GOP leaders.

What they're saying: A national GOP strategist working on House races told Axios the race is an "uphill fight" for Republicans.

  • Among the headwinds: President Biden's eight-point victory in the district in 2020, Democrats' 2-to-1 spending advantage, Republicans' turnout struggles in special elections and a snowstorm that could keep away predominantly GOP Election Day voters.
  • "[The] weather may cause a problem," said one House Republican who's been involved in the race — though they expressed confidence Pilip can still win.

The other side: Democrats noted the growing GOP dominance of the district on the local level. "Long Island isn't just Republican-curious," said Cass.

  • Cass pointed to a "strong MAGA current running through Long Island" that, among other things, resulted in Santos' 2022 victory.
  • Another Democratic operative said the district is "more of a Zeldin+12 district than a Biden+8 district," referring to Republican Lee Zeldin's strong performance in Long Island in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Zoom in: Democrats also argue that, because of the local trends, a failure to flip the district wouldn't necessarily be a sign of broader weakness.

  • "New York's 17th, Oregon's 5th ... those districts are more indicative of what the general election across the board will look like," the Democratic operative said.

The backdrop: The district seat became vacant following Santos' expulsion in December, the culmination of his many fabrications in the 2022 campaign, two federal indictments and an explosive House Ethics report.

State of play: Every poll of the race has had Suozzi leading by a narrow but consistent four percentage points.

  • The predominant issue on the campaign trail has been immigration, with Republicans accusing Suozzi of being complicit in the border crisis.
  • Suozzi has leaned into the issue and tried to burnish his centrist bona fides as a supporter of both border security and a path to citizenship.

Go deeper: What to know about the special election to replace George Santos

Go deeper