2024 New York congressional battleground

Can Tom Suozzi win in an increasingly conservative Long Island?

The special election for the 3rd Congressional District will test whether Suozzi’s name recognition can overcome the political trends pushing Long Island to the right.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi speaks to supporters at his campaign launch in Levittown on Dec. 9, 2023.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi speaks to supporters at his campaign launch in Levittown on Dec. 9, 2023. Suozzi for Congress 2024

The political world will be watching Long Island on Feb. 13 when former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, and Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Republican, compete to replace disgraced former Rep. George Santos in the 3rd Congressional District. It won’t just be the first congressional race of the year in New York – it’ll be the first one in the country during a crucial election year. That means that both parties, as well as outside groups, will pour millions into the race that will likely be treated as a bellwether for other contested House seats.

But Long Island has bucked national trends in recent years, as Republicans have swept the region since 2021 while Democrats performed much better in other parts of the country. Republicans have turned out to vote in larger numbers than Democrats, leading to numerous upsets of Democratic incumbents. On paper, Republicans would seem to enter the race as the party to beat based on the past three years of electoral history. But both parties will be working hard to ensure voters are aware of the special election – and that they’re motivated to vote.

Since 2021, Republicans have dominated on Long Island, winning both countywide and local races. Last year, Republicans flipped several elected offices and held on to others. Among them, the town supervisor position in the once-Democratic stronghold of North Hempstead, with the Republican-backed incumbent winning a second term over a former Democratic town supervisor.

Not only does that trend give Republicans reason to believe that voters may favor them in the upcoming special election, it also provides them with numerous surrogates who have their own constituencies to bolster Pilip’s campaign. “I think one of our pluses is that we are able to mobilize the volunteers and get out and have a real strong ground game,” Nassau County GOP Chair Joe Cairo told City & State. “We don’t have people from Brooklyn or New Jersey or Connecticut to come, and certainly not paid people, to distribute literature. We have neighbors knocking on neighbors’ doors.” Cairo also noted that this is the only election in February, meaning that the entire party organization – both inside and outside the district – can focus its efforts on the race.

Nassau County has a Republican executive, Bruce Blakeman, whose spokesperson said he plans to be heavily involved in the race. Nassau County’s other member of Congress, Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, attended Pilip’s launch event and will likely be involved in get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of his own race later this year. Popular and influential Republicans former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato and former Rep. Pete King also came out for Pilip’s first campaign event, a show of force of the strength of the Republican brand on Long Island.

It’s a stark contrast to Suozzi’s own launch event roughly a week earlier. His rally featured no other current or former Democratic officials, and when asked, he would not say whether he expected or wanted Gov. Kathy Hochul, the leader of the Democratic Party in New York, to campaign for him. Although Hochul won Nassau in the Democratic primary for governor, besting Suozzi in 2022 on his own home turf, Republican Lee Zeldin won both the county and Long Island as a whole by a wide margin in the general election.

The Democratic brand on Long Island, strongly associated with perceived harmful policies coming out of Albany and Washington, D.C., is considered by some to be practically toxic. Last year, Hochul’s housing plan threatened to override local zoning laws, which triggered intense opposition on Long Island. Signs reading, “Local control, not Hochul control,” were not an uncommon sight in Nassau County. In fact, according to reporting from The New York Times, the governor even demanded that Suozzi not disparage the party in any way during his special election campaign, a move that could damage the party’s efforts to win seats in other parts of the state later in the year. It’s why Democrats like Suozzi have focused on his bipartisan credentials and touted cross-aisle endorsements. Suozzi decided to launch his campaign at the home of a registered Republican who nonetheless supports him.

Low turnout elections, as special elections tend to be, have tended to favor Republicans. “There’s typically a larger percentage of older voters who turn out. Many younger voters tend to vote only in presidential (elections),” Republican consultant William F. B. O’Reilly told City & State. “That should give the Republican in NY-3 a slight bump.”

But Democrats are already working hard to ensure that voters turnout for Suozzi in February. The Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC, dedicated to electing Democrats and winning back the House, recently announced $5.2 million in digital and television ad reservations set to run the week before the election, with an implicit indication that more spending is yet to come. The group also announced $700,000 for mailers in the district.

Democrats also have a voter enrollment advantage in the district of more than 50,000 people and President Joe Biden won it by 2 percentage points in 2020 – hardly a landslide, but still an edge in a year when voters will be thinking about the presidential election. And unlike relative newcomer Pilip, Suozzi is an established name in the district who is running for a version of the seat he previously held. Although both candidates and parties have a truncated timeline to convince voters, Suozzi carries a degree of incumbency that may help to motivate voters as opposed to a lesser-known candidate. “Less work to do in a short time to define himself,” Democratic consultant Matthew Albert said of his assessment that Democrats have the advantage in November.

Despite the timing of the special election, Nassau County Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, who also chairs the state party, told City & State that he expects turnout to be relatively high. “You have the increased national attention on this race. … I don’t think there’s going to be anybody that’s got a heartbeat in that district that won’t know there’s an election,” Jacobs said. Such national attention and focus on more national issues usually benefits Democrats. “It’s pretty much a fair fight because Democrats tend to care more about federal offices, and there’s a part of the Democratic base and even independent women who are amped up over abortion and Geroge Santos,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, after noting that Republicans have an advantage when it comes to existing party apparatus in their municipalities. 

Although opinions vary on how much Santos will ultimately motivate voters in the district, Jacobs pointed out that, historically, Democrats have performed well in races when the previous Republican seat holder faced corruption charges. “When we win the … blanks, unaffiliateds, we’ve seen that in the past, it’s been on the basis of something that Republicans have screwed up,” Jacobs said. In 2015, Democratic former state Sen. Todd Kaminsky won his seat after the expulsion of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, following his indictment on corruption charges. In 2017, former Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran won her seat following criminal corruption charges against her predecessor Ed Mangano. Although trying to tie other Republicans to Santos didn’t work for Democrats in November, voters may react differently in the race for his actual congressional seat.

Although Democrats won’t shy away from reminding voters about the previous Republican who held the seat, Jacobs said that they’d be wise not to fixate on the past. “Voters go to the polls based on their aspirations for tomorrow, not their focus on yesterday,” he said. “And I think the campaign has got to be about tomorrow, and that’s what we should be talking about.”

The sentiment is one that Jacobs actually shares with Cairo, who doesn’t believe that Santos will play a large motivating factor for voters. Only, he views Suozzi as another relic of the past that voters have moved beyond as well. “Tom’s been around a long time, Tom Suozzi, but he’s yesterday,” Cairo said. “Mazi Pilip is today and tomorrow – she’s a new fresh face.”