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Why the election to replace George Santos is so competitive

The circumstances that led to the vacancy of a congressional seat on Long Island were peculiar enough in themselves. After doing everything from lying on almost his entire resume to yelling at protesters about international politics while carrying a baby he claimed was “not yet” his, in the halls of Congress, former Republican Representative George Santos became only the sixth representative in Congress in December. history of being expelled from Congress. But it’s not the scandal-plagued former congressman that makes the special election to replace him so special; it’s the neighborhood itself.

Strategists on both sides of the political aisle expect New York’s 3rd District special election, which takes place Tuesday, to be a tough one. This is the rare special election to take place in a swing district: the seat has an interior electoral baseline – a measure of the average partisanship of congressional districts – of just D+5. Both parties fielded strong candidates: Democrats chose former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represented the district from 2017 to 2023 before leaving to run for governor on a moderate, crime-focused platform. Meanwhile, Republicans nominated Mazi Pilip, a Nassau County lawmaker who served in the Israel Defense Forces and who put immigration at the forefront of her campaign. And the two most recent public polls in the race, from Siena College/Newsday and Emerson College/The Hill/WPIX-TV, both showed Suozzi leading by just 4 percentage points.

But just because the race is competitive doesn’t mean it’s a bellwether for November. The district is on Long Island, which has a unique political identity. Long Island’s congressional districts don’t fall into the same category as other districts filled with wealthy, white, educated voters, who have largely moved from red to blue over the past decade. Instead, Long Island has shifted toward the Republicans in recent years, thanks to a combination of voters concerned about immigration and crime and voters who had a soft spot for the Republican Party before the arrival of former President Donald Trump.

Under the current congressional map, President Joe Biden would have won New York’s 3rd District by 8 points. Other recent election results also paint a picture of a Democratic-leaning district. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the district by 5 points in 2016 and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand by 17 points in 2018. Before Santos won in 2022, Suozzi won three terms in the district, including a victory in double digits in 2020. . Before Suozzi, former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel held the seat.

But Santos’ victory in 2022 didn’t come out of nowhere. Long Island has long been a stronghold for Republicans in the state legislature. During the first half of the 2010s, Republicans dominated representation in the Long Island State Senate, its members nicknamed “the Long Island Nine.” Even today, although Democrats have made gains, Republicans still make up the majority of representation in the island state’s Senate and Assembly.

Additionally, more recently, Long Island voters – many of whom are members of law enforcement – ​​have been turned off by efforts by state Democrats to pass criminal justice reform and no-bail. numerary. And when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants from the southern border to New York in 2022, Long Island voters were reading the headlines. “It really shook up the suburban voters (in the 3rd District), who like their suburban order,” Israel said.

Even before the migrant crisis, backlash against liberal crime policies contributed to massive Republican victories in local elections in Nassau County, the focal point of the 3rd District. In 2021, Republicans ousted the Democratic Nassau County executive and won the race for Nassau County Attorney – the first time the Republican Party had full control of county leadership in nearly 20 years. according to local ABC affiliate. In neighboring Suffolk County, a Republican ousted the Democratic district attorney and Democrats lost their majority on the county council.

And in 2022, even though Republicans underperformed expectations nationwide, they won midterm elections in New York. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul faced a stiff challenge from Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, who won over more than a few Democrats and independents by campaigning hard on crime and immigration. While losing the governorship, Zeldin helped Republicans flip six congressional seats that Biden had won two years before, including three on Long Island. In the 4th District, Anthony D’Esposito won the race for retiring Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice’s open seat. On the eastern tip of the island, Republican Nick LaLota replaced Zeldin. And Zeldin carried the 3rd District by 12 pointspaving the way for Santos’ victory.

The successes continued for Democrats in 2023: a Republican won the Suffolk County executive seat for the first time in two decades. So you can understand why Democrats aren’t taking 2024 for granted.

“Think of the Long Island electorate as a garden,” Israel said. “The roots are Republican, but it tends to flourish as a Democrat. But that changed when the environment changed, due to issues like defunding the police and cashless bail, crime and immigration.”

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic for Democrats in the polls (beyond just Suozzi leading). In the Siena College poll, Suozzi leads Pilip by 4 points despite the sample of likely voters saying they favored Trump over Biden in the 2024 general election, 47% to 42%. This demonstrates how Suozzi might be able to use his moderate bona fides to pull off a victory — without much meaning for Biden or national Democrats.

It could, however, provide a roadmap for other Democrats to win on Long Island — which could go a long way in determining control of the House. Both LaLota and D’Esposito are vulnerable in 2024, and with Democrats only about five seats short of the majority, flipping those three seats could bring Democrats more than halfway there.

On the other hand, no Republican representative in New York can feel so secure; the Democratic-led Legislature will likely redraw the state’s congressional map for the 2024 elections. In some ways, that makes special elections a low-stakes way to test general election messaging in a district that won’t even exist in its current form by the end of the year. And the lessons each party draws from the race’s outcome are likely to inform strategic decisions in November.

However, it still seems like a lot of money and effort for a congressional term that will expire in just a few months. Israel put it this way: “The most expensive short-term rental in a congressional district I have ever seen in my life.” »

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