Democrats are locked in a battle to flip George Santos' old House seat

The party is facing anger from voters in Long Island over issues with the southern border

New York Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi
Tom Suozzi, the Democratic candidate for New York's 3rd Congressional District, speaks during a campaign rally
(Image credit: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

When former GOP Rep. George Santos was expelled from the House of Representatives for ethics violations, it appeared to be an optimal chance for the Democratic Party to flip his seat in New York's 3rd Congressional District back to their side of the aisle. However, what once seemed like an easy victory for the Democrats has now turned into a neck-and-neck battle ahead of the special election on Feb. 13. 

The fight pits the Democratic candidate, Tom Suozzi, against GOP candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip. Suozzi is a Democratic journeyman who has won the seat three prior times. Pilip, an Israeli-American, is a relative newcomer to the national stage who currently serves in the Nassau County Legislature. 

While the nationally publicized demise of Santos may have seemed like a relatively easy flip for Democrats, polls show that the race between Suozzi and Pilip could be a toss-up. The 3rd District, which covers most of Nassau County and part of Queens, is the wealthiest in New York and tends to lean Republican, though it has voted for the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential elections. Some have pointed to controversies over the southern border as one of the main reasons why, despite the bad publicity of Santos, the fight to replace him could go either way. 

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A race complicated by the migrant crisis

Santos' expulsion "looked like everything Democrats could have asked for" and gave them an "open Republican seat in a winnable New York district," Nicholas Fandos said for The New York Times. However, a "suburban wave of discontent fueled by the crush of migrants arriving at the southern border and in New York City has helped transform a potential Democratic pickup into a statistical dead heat."

Both parties "see echoes of [2022], when Republicans were able to harness fears about crime to defy national trends and sweep congressional swing seats across New York," Fandos said. The debate remains almost two years later, and "voter anger over the handling of the southern border has become a central issue," Manu Raju and Haley Talbot said for CNN, especially since many of the migrants sent to New York "now live in this district that encompasses parts of Queens and Long Island."

There is also the question of popularity on both sides of the aisle — with President Joe Biden trailing former President Donald Trump in most national polls, Suozzi is "all but begging Biden to steer clear of the district during a visit to New York City for a series of campaign fundraisers," Isaac Shorr said for Mediaite. Although Biden won the 3rd District by eight points in 2020, "his unpopularity in office has rendered him a potential liability to Democrats who might otherwise welcome him," Shorr said. 

A preview of November

The 3rd District "is replacing George Santos — and maybe picking the next president," Mark Chiusano said for Politico. Indeed, Santos' expulsion and the "refocusing of attention beyond the borders of the district — put Nassau County in position to once again serve as a suburban crystal ball," Chiusano said. The 3rd District has often served as a preview of national trends and the upcoming election could be a snapshot of what's to come in the presidential race.

"Considering the importance of suburbs to Democrats in the 2020 election, Biden and Trump could see their fates foretold in Nassau months before November," Chiusano said, and it is "back to normal for purplish Nassau County, the once and maybe future prophet of who will win the White House." The district has seen shifting trends in recent decades when it comes to picking the president — while it has voted blue in the last four cycles, it was "once so deeply red that Ronald Reagan claimed that when a Republican goes to heaven, it looks a lot like Nassau," Chiusano said. 

However, Suozzi "has more money and is much better known than his GOP opponent," Russell Berman said for The Atlantic. For now, the polls swing slightly in his favor over Pilip, and "whether Suozzi's campaign proves effective next week will offer clues about the swing districts that could determine control of Congress," Berman said. If he wins, it could "point the way for Democratic candidates to redirect attacks on Biden's record and ease fears that the border impasse could be an insurmountable liability this fall."

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