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Former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.)

Suozzi leans in on immigration in toss-up special election

BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Democrats are contesting the special election in New York’s 3rd District on unfavorable political terrain. The central issue of the race is immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border crisis, providing an early preview of what may animate battleground House races come November.

Unlike other recent special elections in the post-Roe era, abortion rights aren’t top of mind for voters here. Instead, both candidates are focusing on how the migrant crisis is affecting New York communities. And former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), who previously represented the district in Congress, is leaning into the issue in a way unlike any Democrat has to date.

Suozzi is locked in a toss-up battle with GOP political newcomer Mazi Pilip, an Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant whose campaign is largely being conducted behind closed doors. But despite Pilip’s light schedule — she declined our interview requests and didn’t hold any public events with the start of early voting this weekend — the race is tight.

The battle for control of the Long Island seat will determine whether Speaker Mike Johnson will see his minuscule majority shrink yet again. A sign both parties are taking it seriously: Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries visited the district in recent days ahead of the Feb. 13 election.

Immigration takes center stage: Pilip and her GOP allies have attacked Suozzi by linking him to President Joe Biden’s unpopular immigration policies. Suozzi responded by asserting he’s worked across the aisle for years to find bipartisan common ground on the issue.

While the 3rd District voted for Biden by 8 points in 2020, the district elected now-expelled former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) two years later. And when Suozzi — who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2022 — rallied union carpenters in Bethpage, N.Y., early Saturday morning, he acknowledged his party had some work to do.

“I got a Democratic registration advantage, but people in my district are upset with the Democrats because they haven’t been tough enough on things like the border,” Suozzi told the carpenters.

“They’re worried about the immigration crisis. People streaming across the border. What the hell’s going on? Seems so chaotic,” Suozzi said. This is rhetoric you won’t often hear from Democrats.

We asked Suozzi if he was concerned that the race was playing out on Republican turf. The argument goes that most voters concerned about the border may already be GOP-leaning. Suozzi rejected our premise.

“This is not a Republican issue. This is an American issue,” Suozzi told us. “This is a problem we’ve had in our country for 35 years, and we have not reformed the immigration system. I’ve worked hard and in a bipartisan fashion to address it.”

Abortion rights: The Democratic message of protecting statewide abortion rights is a tougher sell in New York, where there is no threat of state restrictions. Suozzi is hitting Pilip for not pledging to codify Roe. But Pilip has taken away some of the thunder from activists by committing to oppose a national abortion ban.

This race is a different story than the last high-profile special election in New York. Back in summer 2022, Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) won an upset in a Hudson Valley district while capitalizing on widespread anger in the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision.

A study in contrasts: Over the weekend, Suozzi crisscrossed Nassau County at multiple public rallies open to the press. Pilip, who doesn’t campaign on Saturday because she observes the Jewish Sabbath, held zero public events.

Suozzi is a political veteran who brushes off aides if they try to stop reporter questions after rallies. Pilip has two years experience in the county legislature and doesn’t answer questions at her own news conferences.

But in a February election when turning out the base is key, the vaunted Nassau County GOP machine — which Suozzi decried as the “strongest it’s been since I was the county executive” in the early 2000s — may be the difference maker.

— Max Cohen

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.