Tom Suozzi Beat Mazi Pilip in New York by Running on the Border

mazi pilip tom suozzi

Last night on Long Island a relatively inoffensive, centrist establishment Democrat triumphed over the charismatic political newcomer in a swingy suburban district in a race that was dominated by a debate over immigration. Tom Suozzi’s victory in New York’s 3rd Congressional District over Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip is a balm for voters anxious about Joe Biden’s anemic approval ratings and his performance in head-to-heads polls against former President Donald Trump in a general election race poised to be a referendum on border policy.

Like national surveys of the presidential race, polls ahead of the special election in NY-3 suggested a close contest, with Suozzi, who represented this seat for three terms before retiring in 2022, leading Pilip by a single percentage point in one survey released the day before the election. In the end, the once-and-future congressman won by roughly eight points, and Democrats took back the seat previously held by disgraced Republican Rep. George Santos, who was expelled from Congress in December. Suozzi’s win may also be a sign that hammering on immigration — then refusing to act — could be a major tactical error for Republicans.

The result in New York’s 3rd was not the only good news for Democrats on Tuesday. In a critical election in Pennsylvania — where control of the state house was at stake — the Democratic won easily, dramatically overperforming Biden’s 2020 margin of victory in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The picture was dire for Republicans even in Oklahoma, where their candidate won a state house seat by just five percentage points in a district that went for Trump by 26 points in 2020. 

Together, Tuesday’s results represented the continuation of a hot streak for Democrats, who have outperformed Biden’s 2020 results by an average of four percentage points in special elections that have taken place over the last two years, in wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overruling Roe v. Wade, according to an analysis by Daily Kos. 

The bad news for Republicans in NY-3 is not just that they lost a seat, or that they lost it by more votes than they expected to: it’s the fact that they lost a race that was defined by immigration, their signature issue. Though Suozzi worked to tie Pilip, a mother of seven, to Republicans’ unpopular anti-abortion policies, the border emerged as the defining issue of the race, with the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s super PAC, spending at least $1.5 million on dark TV spots blaming Suozzi for a migrant “crisis.”

But as those ads were airing in New York, Republicans in Congress were walking away from negotiations on a bipartisan immigration deal that included many of the border reform measures they have been demanding for years. Republicans appear to have abandoned the proposed deal almost entirely because Trump demanded they kill it, believing it would give Biden a win months ahead of the election. Rolling Stone reported last month that Trump was telling confidants that Republicans who supported the legislation were “stupid” for backing something that could help the president in November. Rolling Stone has also obtained footage of Trump-loving Rep. Troy Nehls saying that “Congress doesn’t have to do anything” about the border. “Why would I help Joe Biden?” the congressman from Texas wondered.

Suozzi’s win is the first indication that the GOP’s Trump-inspired abdication of any responsibility to address the border could hurt the party at the ballot box. “Several [voters] said to me that they don’t want to vote for the Republican because it’s clearly impossible to get a solution on the issue of immigration … and that the fact that Republicans killed that bipartisan deal put them over the edge to vote for Tom Suozzi,” CNN’s Dana Bash said last night.

It’s also possible that the GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric undercut their candidate’s own narrative. The Republican Pilip, herself an immigrant born in Ethiopia who later sought refuge in Israel, before moving to the United States in her late 20s, was selected by local party leaders including former Rep. Peter King (R), who cited her “superstar capacity,” calling Pilip “the American success story,” even as others raised early questions about her experience and ability to fundraise. 

Still, GOP apologists looking to spin their loss can point to any number of factors for the underperformance: the fact that they were heavily outspent — nearly two-to-one — by Democrats, or an election-day snowstorm on that may have also had an impact of the results (Republicans are more likely to vote in-person on the day of a race than Democrats). 


And there is one other factor that while difficult to quantify, can’t be ignored: The last time voters in this district took a chance, electing a GOP lawmaker for the first time in more than 30 years, he turned out to be a serial fabulist and national punchline. (Santos, for his part, took a shot at the party that ejected him Tuesday night, seeming to gloat over their loss.)

In the end, this was a return-to-mean event in a once solidly Democratic district, but one with big consequences: Suozzi’s victory shaves another seat off the razor-thin Republican majority in Congress. Even more important than picking up a seat could be the blueprint, or at least parts of one, that Suozzi provided other Democrats looking to turn the border from an election liability into an advantage.

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