New York State

Tom Suozzi’s special election win gives Democrats hope for November

However, there were several unusual factors in this race that might be hard to replicate.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi was jubilant Tuesday night after winning a special election for his old seat.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi was jubilant Tuesday night after winning a special election for his old seat. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Democrat Tom Suozzi cruised to victory Tuesday night over Republican candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip in the special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District – a resounding rebuke of harsh Republican rhetoric on immigration and the migrant crisis in New York City. National observers have kept a close eye on the race as a potential bellwether for races across the country, and about the issues that will play nationwide in the suburbs. Tuesday’s outcome provided a boon for Democrats ahead of November and evidence that immigration may not be the winning issue that Republicans hoped it would be. But various aspects of the race could still make it difficult to repeat Suozzi’s path to victory in other states.

In his victory speech to supporters gathered at an election night party in Woodbury, Suozzi acknowledged the looming presence of the migrant crisis. “Much like our whole country, this race was centered on immigration and the economy, much like the issues all across our country,” he said. “We won this race – we, you, won this race – because we addressed the issue and we found a way to bind our divisions.”

Polling before the election showed immigration was a top concern among voters, which includes a migrant tent shelter at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in the small Queens portion of the district. Republicans ran heavily on the issue, seeking to tie Suozzi to New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the national Democratic policies of President Joe Biden. Even on election night, Republicans promised they would not let up on the issue in upcoming elections. “Republicans will win this seat in November when the campaign resets to focus on Joe Biden and Democrats’ disastrous open borders, soft on crime policies, rather than the specific circumstances that brought about this special election,” state GOP Chair Ed Cox said in a statement.

Democrats and left-wing organizations were quick to jump on the special election victory. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is one of the officials leading congressional electoral efforts in New York, clearly saw the Tuesday night victory as a sign of more good things to come. “This win kickstarts Democrats’ path to regaining control over the House, and that path flows through New York,” Hochul said in a statement. She said voters “rejected Republicans’ extreme political agenda” that included failing to secure the border.

The day after the election, Hochul doubled down on her belief that Republicans had floundered on immigration and that Suozzi’s success provides a clear roadmap for November. “Last night, we saw the road ahead, and it’s a clear road, a path to victory for Democrats to make sure we win back the House of Representatives,” Hochul said. She said that Republicans’ rejection of a bipartisan border and immigration deal shortly before the special election “is what will be used against Republicans, certainly in our state.”

National Democrats clearly viewed Suozzi’s victory as a playbook as well. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent a memo to his Democratic colleagues to follow Suozzi’s lead on immigration. “Quite simply, we risk losing the 2024 election if we do not seize this opportunity to go on offense on the issue of the border and turn the tables on Republicans on a key fall voting issue,” he wrote, as one the key negotiators in the bipartisan border deal that fell apart.

Republican consultant William F. B. O’Reilly said Suozzi’s sizeable margin of victory – following polling that showed him with a narrow lead – spelled bad news for Republicans moving forward who were banking on immigration. “With Suozzi cruising to a fairly comfortable win, it’s clear that attempts to tie him to the migrant crisis were woefully unsuccessful. Republicans put all their eggs in that basket, but voters weren’t buying it,” O’Reilly said. “The big walkaway question is how potent a national issue migration will be in 2024. If it didn’t play in migrant-flooded New York, how’s it going to play in Podunk?”

Certainly at the statewide level, the victory was good news for Democrats, who were hoping to see a win in the first congressional race of the year. After a brutal 2022 midterm, the party was expected to perform better during a presidential election year. And winning a highly contested, low-turnout, dead of winter special election signaled that Democrats may have reason for optimism this year. “It showed that (if) Democrats run moderate candidates that are well-funded and well-known, and they invest some effort into (getting) out the vote, they can overcome potential problems, like immigration (and) the economy,” Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center of Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said in a text message.

Levy noted that even if the district doesn’t bear much resemblance to other suburban swing districts across the country, it does provide some insight into what will work in nearby districts on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley – both of which will be critical as Democrats try to win back the House. “Thus we’re back to national implications.”

In line with Levy’s reminder that the Long Island suburbs may not offer insight into other parts of the country, political analyst Eli Valentin warned against overgeneralizing the impacts of the Long Island special election. He referred to the old political adage that all politics is local, which he felt was especially true in the 3rd Congressional District. “What Long Island Democrats and Republicans may think or what their voter preference was (on Election Day), we cannot easily translate that into how someone in suburban Philadelphia may think,” Valentin said. “We have to be careful.”

The race to replace disgraced ex-Rep. George Santos was as idiosyncratic as the former lawmaker himself. Long Island has bucked both national and even New York state swing district trends. While Democrats generally performed well in the 2022 midterms nationally, losses on Long Island – as well as in New York City’s northern suburbs in the Hudson Valley – cost the party control of the House. Local issues related to crime and policies out of Albany played a large role in Republicans’ resurgent success in areas that had been trending blue and voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. Suozzi’s own decision not to seek reelection in 2022 in favor of running for governor also paved the way to an open seat victory for Santos, whom Suozzi easily bested in 2020.

Long Island once again was an outlier in the 2023 elections for local seats across the state. Democrats in other parts of the state touted big victories in areas that Republicans had won just the year before. But on Long Island, Republicans completed their near total sweep of major local elected positions in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, continuing the multiyear “red wave” the party has ushered over the island.

Since January, when Hochul announced the special election to replace Santos, Democrats and Republicans utilized totally opposite strategies and candidates to win the seat. Democrats, guided in large part by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, opted to run a seasoned politician and powerhouse fundraiser in Suozzi. And Hochul made sure Suozzi would not denigrate the party before he entered the race. His significant name recognition and existing political ties, both locally and nationally, as well as a track record in Congress made him a formidable opponent. It would have been hard for Democrats, on paper, to find a stronger candidate for the seat. And because the Democratic brand has become tarnished on Long Island – neither Biden nor Hochul campaigned for him – Suozzi ran strongly on his existing personal brand to convince voters. “This is something that cannot be replicated in other districts,” Valentin said.

In addition to Suozzi’s strong profile as a candidate, other factors were likely unique to this race. An unexpected snowstorm threw a wrench in Election Day voting and may have depressed Republican turnout. A week before the election, Republican leaders in the House rejected a bipartisan border deal negotiated in the Senate. Democrats quickly attacked vulnerable Republicans in New York – Hochul called the rejection a “suicide pact” that would cost them key races. Although some leaders have made it clear they believe that this will continue to help Democrats, news moves fast. The Republican House leadership crisis that dominated national news and that Democrats pounced on a few months ago as a prime example of political dysfunction became a total nonissue almost the moment members elected a new leader.

Both parties also poured an astounding amount of money into the race. A day before the election, both sides had spent a total of over $21 million on ads. It’s unlikely such vast sums of money will be spent on every swing seat in November.

Following the election, groups from progressive coalitions to unions were patting themselves on the back for their role in getting the vote out for Suozzi and knocking on thousands of doors. The massive effort, like the enormous amount of money spent, was only possible because the special election was the only congressional race taking place in the country.

And the different groups that made up the broad coalition that helped to propel Suozzi to victory highlighted different messages as key to winning, and already differences are beginning to emerge. In response to Murphy’s memo that concluded Democrats should message hard on immigration, Indivisible put out a statement downplaying what they considered a right-leaning rhetoric on the border. “To the degree that (Suozzi’s) focus on immigration helped, it was because it highlighted Republican chaos, political theater and their complete lack of interest in serious governing – all with a crisp receipt in their choice to tank their own border bill,”said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible.

Republicans, on the other hand, went with a political newcomer in Pilip, a largely untested second-term Nassau County legislator with a compelling personal history, but little name recognition, fundraising prowess or political experience. O’Reilly called her nomination “a bold play.” But unlike Democrats, Republicans in Nassau have one of the strongest remaining party machines in the state, and it served as the backbone to the campaign rather than the candidate herself. As The New York Times reported, Pilip’s campaign didn’t have any staff on payroll – everyone came from the local GOP machine.

The night before the election, at a rally held at a Nassau GOP headquarters, local party Chair Joe Cairo got as many shoutouts as Pilip herself. “We have the greatest coach in the business,” Rep. Anthony D’Esposito – one of Pilip’s main surrogates in the race – said at the time. Rep. Nick LaLota said Cairo was “building a dynasty” in Nassau and had the “wisdom” to nominate Pilip. “The entire nation is looking here in Nassau County, and they’re wondering if we’re going to step up,” LaLota said. “They’re wondering if we’re going to carry the ball across the finish line.” Ultimately, the strength of the Nassau GOP machine, which has racked up Republican victories for the past three years, was not enough in the face of Suozzi’s candidacy.

Democrats in New York and beyond won’t, for the most part, be running for open seats against political unknowns when they attempt to win back the House in November. Rather, they’ll face the strength of Republican incumbency that not only Pilip lacked, but that Suozzi benefited from as the “comeback kid,” as state and Nassau County Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs dubbed him on election night. “The result last night is not something that Democrats should celebrate too hard,” House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters in Washington, D.C., the day after the election. “Think about what happened there – they spent about $15 million to win a seat that President Biden won by 8 points. … That incumbent had been a three-term member of Congress, and he had 100% name ID and a deep family history in the district.” Johnson seemed to misspeak when referring to Suozzi as the incumbent, but many observers treated him as such. Johnson said that a number of factors, including the snowstorm, influenced the results and that the race was “in no way a bellwether.”

Reports on Republican grumblings around what went wrong made note of the somewhat niche ways that the party strategized. One report said members placed the blame on Pilip for not raising enough money and largely staying away from the press, as well as criticizing the Nassau GOP machine that almost entirely ran the campaign. Another suggested that older white Italian voters in the district who might normally have voted Republican felt more comfortable voting for one of their own over a Black woman who speaks with an accent. As Politico New York pointed out, Pilip would have been the first Black Republican elected to Congress from New York.

Democrats somewhat ridiculed the strength of the Nassau GOP after it was held up for the entire campaign. Suozzi, at his victory party, said he won “despite the vaunted Nassau County Republican machine.” And in a statement, Jeffries offered a similar assessment, saying Democrats bested “the much-hyped Nassau County Republican machine and its handpicked candidate.”

Republicans had expressed an abundance of confidence leading up to the election. Just days before election night, following the first and only debate of the race, former Rep. Pete King told City & State that internal polling had Pilip ahead, and he considered her the de facto incumbent. “Suozzi’s the challenger right now,” King said at the time. Rep. Elise Stefanik, at a rally the night before the election, spoke of the implications of the special election’s outcome. “The nation is watching what happens here tomorrow in New York’s 3rd District,” she said. “The world is watching what (happens here) tomorrow.”

Republicans had a very different tune on election night, when they referred to her as the underdog of the race. “This was an uphill battle,” the National Republican Campaign Committee said in a statement downplaying the loss. On election night, Pilip gave only brief remarks as well. “Let’s keep it up. We will continue to fight. Because we are not going to give up,” she told supporters at The Lannin in East Meadow. It was unclear on election night whether she would run again in November.