Monday, February 12, 2024

BTRTN: Preview of New York’s 3rd Congressional District Special Election

Tom reviews the race to replace George Santos.

George Santos will have a D-List celebrity career while on his way to becoming an answer to a trivia question and a historical footnote.  His bizarre run in the limelight as the U.S. representative in New York’s 3rd District ended last December when the dysfunctional GOP-led House finally expelled him, after a near two-year saga.  It took that long to dislodge the fabulist because the GOP was loathe to give up a single vote while their hold on the House was so slim.  Santos’s absence was sorely felt when Speaker Mike Johnson’s effort to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas fell, embarrassingly, by a single vote.  “Remember me?” Santos mockingly tweeted after the vote.

That vote certainly underlined how crucial this swing district is right now.  The GOP is planning to attempt to impeach Mayorkas again on Tuesday, the same day as the special election to replace Santos.  This is the one day that they can do this with at least some confidence, because ailing Majority Leader Steve Scalise will be back as that desperately needed extra vote, a vote that would be offset if they waited any further if the Democrats flip Santos’s seat.   

The race pits Democrat, and former NY3 rep, Tom Suozzi, who quit the seat to run (unsuccessfully) for New York governor in 2022, against GOP candidate (and political neophyte) Mazi Melesa Pilip.  NY3 comprises most of Nassau County in Long Island and a small part of Queens.  The seat had been a reliably Democratic seat for a decade since 2012, when Steve Israel won it; Suozzi won in 2016, 2018 and 2020, by notable margins (+6, +18, +12); Biden won the district by +8 in 2020.  But when Suozzi stepped down in 2022, the Republican Santos won by +7 over Robert Zimmerman (no, not Bob Dylan) in a race in which Santos’s personal defects were identified, in part, but neither investigated in depth nor publicized nearly enough.

Many view the NY3 vote as a bellwether for November.  Beyond their unexpected performance in the 2022 midterms, Democrats have done exceedingly well in special elections across the country since the midterms, involving local elections (in state legislatures), some ballot initiatives (on abortion rights), a congressional election in Rhode Island and a state supreme court judgeship race in Minnesota, outperforming prior election norms by roughly +10 points on average.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the Republicans have not won an election cycle since 2016, having lost the House in 2018, the Senate and White House in 2020, the midterm expectations game in 2022, and the array of special elections since.  So, some view NY3 as a test of those prevailing winds.

Santos’s win in 2022 was part of a strong showing by the GOP in New York State which, along with Ron DeSantis and company in Florida, were the only bright spots on an otherwise dismal midterm showing by the party nationally.  The GOP did succeed in flipping the House but secured it by the unexpectantly thin margin of only five votes, a margin that has rendered them ungovernable, leading to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster and Mike Johnson’s humiliating reign of error.  That margin has since been whittled down further by the Santos expulsion, the resignations of McCarthy and Bill Johnson of Ohio, offset a bit by the resignation of New York Democrat Brian Higgins.  There will be special elections upcoming for all of those vacant seats, too, in the coming months.

Our official BTRTN prediction is that Democrat Tom Suozzi will win New York’s 3rd congressional district special election by a tight margin, thereby flipping the seat and giving the GOP an even tighter margin for Johnson to work with in the House. There have been two recent polls, one by Newsday and another by Emerson, among likely voters that each show Suozzi up by +4, at the very edge of the margin of error for both.

But the key question is, what will it mean going forward for 2024?  Is NY3 really a good bellwether?  Since New York was so contrary in 2022, it is hard to have confidence that, whatever the outcome, it will be indicative of anything other than the electoral environment in Nassau County.  The 2022 races in New York that flipped to the GOP were largely contested and won on the strength of the “crime” issue, which was a unique platform relative to the rest of the country.

This current NY3 special election, however, has been largely contested on a national issue, immigration, at a time when that issue is in the midst of realignment in terms of messaging.  This is because of the volte face of the GOP with respect to its own hardline immigration bill, which was supported by Joe Biden and (enough) Senate Democrats.  When Donald Trump put out the word that he wanted to bill dead, the GOP Senate meekly followed, mustering only four GOP votes for a bill that they themselves wrote and believed went a long way to addressing their own border security concerns.  Trump believes he needs the immigration issue to run on against Biden, with the economy strengthening by the day.  Handing Biden a bipartisan win with the bill was not what he had in mind (putting, of course and as usual, his own interests ahead of the country).  Biden may not have gotten the win that comes with signing a bill on his weakest issue, but the GOP’s astonishing reversal has given him, Suozzi and the Democrats powerful messaging on immigration, which they had lacked.  They are now able to point to Trump and the GOP as obstructionists in solving the very problem they are running on, and, in addition, the fiasco is yet another example of the GOP’s inability to govern.

All of this occurred in the waning days of the Suozzo-Pilip race.  Has there been enough time for the Democrats' anti-GOP messaging to take hold?  Probably not.  So it is difficult to see how this election is a portent of the future, when it is being waged in a brand new environment that is still evolving and doubtless will continue to do so.

Pilip is also an interesting candidate, with a background and resume built for the times.  She is an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, who married a Ukrainian immigrant.  Here background is thus a personal trifecta that links the three crucial elements – immigration, Ukraine and Israel -- of the Senate bill.  She is also a registered Democrat running as a Republican and is toeing the GOP party line on immigration.

So, regardless of the outcome, NY3’s status as a bellwether is unclear, but a Democratic win could hardly hurt the party’s perception that the winds are with them.

Stay tuned...














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