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Race to replace George Santos dominated by border fight: NPR

Left: Former Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., right, is competing to replace expelled GOP Rep. Santos. Right: Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip greets attendees at her GOP fundraising event hosted by the Nassau County Republican Committee on Monday, February 5. , 2024, in Jericho, New York.

John Minchillo/AP; Brittany Newman/AP

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John Minchillo/AP; Brittany Newman/AP

Left: Former Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., right, is competing to replace expelled GOP Rep. Santos. Right: Congressional candidate Mazi Pilip greets attendees at her GOP fundraising event hosted by the Nassau County Republican Committee on Monday, February 5. , 2024, in Jericho, New York.

John Minchillo/AP; Brittany Newman/AP

The special election to fill the remainder of the term of expelled New York Republican congressman George Santos became the first test of Democrats’ campaign strategy in critical districts that could determine control of the House in November.

Immigration policy dominated the contest in this New York district located thousands of miles from the U.S. border with Mexico. The race pits former Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, who served three terms in the House, and Republican Nassau County lawmaker Mazi Melesa Pilip.

Supporters of both candidates said a large influx of migrants into New York City was having serious consequences for the district, which stretches from parts of working-class and middle-class neighborhoods in Queens to the county’s wealthy suburbs from Nassau, to Long Island.

Public polls show a tight race in a district that has shifted significantly in the last election. Biden won the district in 2020, but the GOP’s victory in the 2022 contest in the district, along with others in the New York suburbs, helped them flip control of the House in 2022. Critics of Democrats’ handling of crime pushed independents to support the GOP. candidates.

Candidates and outside groups have spent more than $20 million on ads and voting operations for the upcoming election. This time, the partisan fight over immigration could be a precursor to the fight for the White House and the House of Representatives in 2024. Supporters of both candidates who voted early this weekend highlighted border security as a major question.

Voters say border security is a priority

“Immigration is obviously a problem, because we see it every day. It’s a huge problem right now. And not only that, immigration also takes work away from our union members. So that hurts as well in our pockets,” Joseph said. Karass, union volunteer for the Suozzi campaign in Queens.

Louis Mayer, a retired New York City police officer, voted early for Pilip in Plainview, N.Y., and said of the impact of the border crisis: “It’s becoming out of control. Most of us feel that way. I mean, we specifically feel like the southern border is crazy and we’d like to see some sort of control there.”

In the weeks leading up to the election, Suozzi focused his speech on fixing the broken immigration system. He says he already has a track record from his last term in Congress, including his membership in the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a group dedicated to working across the aisle.

In an interview with NPR during a campaign finale in Plainview, N.Y. Suozzi said he supports a bipartisan proposal on immigration that was recently released in the Senate. This bill was rejected by Republicans on Capitol Hill last week. Suozzi said voters want someone who focuses on solutions and avoids questions about whether Biden’s handling of the border could be a liability for his campaign.

“I wish the president would have done something in August,” he said. “But it is what it is. And now we just have to keep moving forward to get there.”

Suozzi criticized her opponent, Pilip, for opposing the bill without specifying what she should do to solve the problem.

Pilip, who is a registered Democrat, was elected as a Republican to the county legislature in 2021. She was tapped by county Republicans after Santos’ expulsion and pledged to change her voter registration. After dodging questions about whether she voted for Trump, Pilip recently told the New York Post that she voted for him in 2016 and 2020.

His campaign focused heavily on Suozzi’s responsibility for the record number of migrants entering through the southwest border and the impact of New York’s broken immigration system. She portrays him as part of the Washington establishment.

“What Tom Suozzi and Biden have done is they’ve totally opened the border. Millions of people are coming through. We don’t know if they’re criminals. We don’t know if they’re terrorists . We don’t know who they are here,” Pilip charged during the only debate between the candidates last week.

In that appearance and in campaign ads, she also highlighted her personal story as an Ethiopian who emigrated to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces.

A local battle with national implications

In the days leading up to the election, Pilip made few public appearances during the campaign. His campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests from NPR.

Other New York Republican lawmakers, including GOP conference chairwoman Elise Stefanik, came out in support of Pilip at Franklin Square in Nassau County. And national Republican organizations and major GOP-funded Super PACs are covering the airwaves on his behalf.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the main political arm of the House Republican leadership, spent more than $4 million on the race. The group’s investments included a widely distributed television ad saying, “Tom Suozzi helped create our immigration crisis in Congress. He will only make things worse.”

Ads funded by national GOP groups also highlight President Biden’s image, but Suozzi doesn’t talk about him and told CNN the focus is on local issues and he doesn’t want the president is campaigning for him.

Both campaigns aimed to encourage supporters to vote early, and the forecast of heavy snowfall on Tuesday could impact turnout.

Speaking to reporters in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, Suozzi sidestepped questions about Biden’s age and special counsel Robert Hur’s report that raised concerns about the president’s memory.

“I know he’s an old man. I’m not worried about his mental acuity, but I know he’s an old man. He’s 81 years old. That’s a fact,” Suozzi said.

As a former congressman looking to win back a seat in Washington, Souzzi isn’t shy about saying his party has lost ground in the district in recent years, he told NPR. “We lost everything: the local races, the state races, the federal race.”

He’s working to connect Pilip to Santos, who was expelled after a House Ethics investigation found he violated House rules and spent his campaign on personal expenses like Botox and an account OnlyFans. Santos also faces 23 criminal charges.

“At the end of the day, my Mazi Pilip opponent is George Santos 2.0,” Suozzi told campaign volunteers at an event aimed at increasing turnout in Plainview.

Pilip and his Republican allies, on the ground and in paid campaign ads, associate Suozzi with Biden and progressive House Democrats, often nicknamed “the Squad.”

Suozzi, who was a member of the moderate “New Democrat” coalition, rejects this comparison and repeatedly emphasizes his support for Israel, another major factor in this constituency with a high percentage of Jewish voters.

“For you to suggest that I’m a member of the team is about as credible as being a member of George Santos’ volleyball team,” Suozzi told Pilip during last week’s debate.

Democrats are also trying to make reproductive rights an issue in this race. Pilip, a mother of seven, says she is personally pro-life, but said during last week’s debate: “I will support some things, but I will not support a national ban on abortion.”

But Pilip has been backed by the Conservative Party, which is pushing for a nationwide ban on abortion.

National party leaders and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are closely watching the results of the race in New York. It may be a stretch to call this an indicator of how other competitive races might play out in the fall. But it could show whether Democrats’ efforts to try to turn the tables on border security, an issue traditionally championed by Republican candidates, is working with suburban voters.

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