Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip will go head-to-head on Thursday night in the first and only debate in the special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District on Long Island. The election will take place Feb. 13, and early voting numbers show Democrats with a slight turnout edge – but a new poll has the two candidates in a statistical dead heat.
The pre-taped debate is scheduled to air Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. on News 12 Long Island. Those without an Optimum cable subscription can watch the debate for free through Pluto TV.
On Thursday morning, a Siena College/Newsday poll of NY-3 voters found Suozzi has a slim four-point lead over Pilip – a number that falls within the poll’s margin of error. That’s about the same as the three-point lead Suozzi held in an Emerson College/PIX11 poll from last month.
While Suozzi holds slight leads in both of the public polls in the race, some observers cautioned that the numbers are not encouraging for Democrats. “While up is good, anyone who lived through Joe Crowley/AOC will tell you, you don’t want to be under 50 this close to Election Day,” former Andrew Cuomo top adviser Melissa DeRosa wrote on X, referencing the surprise upset of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over then-Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018.
The new poll also shows Pilip leading Suozzi with voters on the issue of immigration, which has emerged as the focal point of the race as New York City continues to grapple with an influx of asylum-seekers. The Siena/Newsday survey found that 49% of voters believe Pilip would do a better job at addressing immigration, while 40% believe Suozzi would do better. Last month’s Emerson/PIX11 poll found that immigration was the top issue of 26% of voters, making it the biggest concern for the largest group of constituents.
Immigration will likely dominate tonight’s debate. Republicans have attacked Suozzi over past statements he made regarding immigration officials and tried to link him to President Joe Biden, whom they blame for the migrant crisis in New York City. Pilip, who was recently endorsed by the Border Patrol union, has held multiple press conferences at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center within the district, which the city is using as one of several temporary migrant shelters.
Suozzi, meanwhile, has attacked Pilip for failing to support a bipartisan border deal rejected by Republican House leadership. He accused her of siding with the most extreme members of her party, while Pilip called the deal a “nonstarter.”
Other national issues like the war between Israel and Hamas will also likely come up during the debate. The district is home to a large community of Jewish voters, and both candidates have tried to paint themselves as the best option to support Israel. Pilip is an Israeli military veteran, and Suozzi has touted his longtime support for Israel while in Congress.
The two candidates may also compete over appealing to the district’s sizable number of Asian voters, who have emerged as a key swing bloc that both parties have attempted to court over the course of the campaign. The Emerson/PIX11 poll from last month found that Suozzi led by a large margin among Asian voters.
Ahead of tonight’s debate, members of both parties are projecting confidence. Republican consultant Chapin Fay, who has done work on Long Island including for former Rep. Lee Zeldin, said he’s feeling “very good” about the race. “Mazi is going to win,” he said. William O’Reilly, a fellow Republican consultant and an opinion columnist for Newsday, said Republicans in the district are confident in Pilip and that immigration is dominating the conversation in her favor. O’Reilly acknowledged that Suozzi, as a veteran politician, may perform better in the televised debate. “But being too polished is out of style these days,” he said. “I think as long as (Pilip) comes across as genuine she'll do okay.”
But one Democratic insider on Long Island said that the debate will be an invaluable opportunity for Suozzi to directly take on a candidate who has largely ducked questions from the press. “Folks will learn how weak a candidate Mazi is and how smart and moderate Suozzi really is, which should give him a nice bump headed into Tuesday,” the insider said. “(Republicans) know that and (it’s) why they never let her speak to press.” Pilip’s campaign has cited scheduling issues for rejecting several other debate invitations, and surrogates at campaign events have often answered questions on her behalf. Journalists have also publicly criticized the campaign’s lack of transparency and the difficulty of trying to engage with Pilip.