Feb 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats see 2024 border blueprint in Suozzi's New York win

Tom Suozzi, wearing a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red sign, standing at a lectern in front of American flags.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fresh off a thumping special election victory in New York, Democrats are rapidly mobilizing around a high-risk, high-reward strategy to flip the script on their biggest vulnerability: the border.

Why it matters: Even Republicans acknowledge that Democrat Tom Suozzi's embrace of stricter border policy — and his attacks on Republicans for rejecting the Senate's bipartisan border bill — contributed to his eight-point victory.

  • "He sounded like a Republican talking about the border," House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said at a press conference Wednesday, in which he urged the GOP not to "panic" about its chances of losing the House in November.
  • Suozzi "basically ran away from what has been the Democratic agenda for the last two years," said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.).

Zoom in: President Biden has vowed to remind voters "every day between now and November" that former President Trump and his GOP allies blew up the bipartisan border deal.

  • Democrats believe Suozzi's victory provided early vindication of that message.

What they're saying: "The GOP has presented Democrats with a unique, unprecedented opening to go on the offensive on border security," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Democrats' lead border negotiator, argued in a memo Wednesday morning.

  • House Democrats' main super PAC echoed that sentiment in its own post-election memo, writing: "It is imperative for Democrats to take the fight to Republicans and hammer them."
  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a new ad Wednesday morning slamming Republicans for ditching "the toughest border bill in a generation."
  • "Tom Suozzi put support for the bipartisan border legislation — and congressional Republicans' killing of it for politics — at the forefront of his case. The results are unmistakable," said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates in a statement.

Zoom out: The bipartisan border deal would have allowed the hiring of thousands of immigration officials and border agents, invested billions in deportation and detention and added barriers to asylum.

  • Republicans' role in tanking that legislation could serve as fodder for Democratic ads as the general election heats up.

The other side: The strategy comes with immense risks — namely that Biden's border policies are cited in polls as the No. 1 factor dragging down his approval rating, and that Suozzi spent much of his campaign distancing himself from the president.

  • Reversing three years of voter perceptions on the border crisis will be a massive challenge for Democrats, especially given the divisions on immigration that persist within the party.
  • "The lesson has to be the right lesson," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told Axios.
  • The correct message, she argued, is not to "say 'I'm going to shut down the border on day one,' it is: 'Immigrants are a critical part of our fabric, Americans want an orderly process with security at the border, and, by the way, Republicans have voted against this every single time.'"

The backdrop: Suozzi is on track to beat Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip by a healthy margin in the race to succeed expelled Republican Rep. George Santos.

  • The election result represented a flip from 2022, when Santos won the seat by eight percentage points. Biden also won it by eight points in 2020.
  • There are plenty of other factors besides border messaging that may have contributed to Suozzi's victory — including the "scandal penalty" the GOP likely paid for Santos' expulsion.

The big picture: The new strategy is a remarkable shift for post-Trump Democrats who have largely avoided the topic of immigration.

  • Biden's White House has even pushed against its top immigration officials publicly discussing the issue in the past, fearful of highlighting a political vulnerability, as Axios reported.
  • "Democrats have been unnecessarily stuck in a defensive crouch on the issue of border security and immigration," Murphy wrote in the memo. "Too many of our leaders retreat to defending the existing system."
  • After years of record numbers of illegal crossings at the border and an onslaught of political attacks from the right, Democrats seem ready to own the importance of border security.
Go deeper