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5 takeaways from the Democrats’ recapture of a House seat

In World
February 14, 2024

Tom Suozzi’s victory in a special House election in New York on Tuesday gave Democrats a badly needed dose of election-year optimism and a model for how to navigate one of their biggest political liabilities: the migrant influx overwhelming the southern border.

Abortion was once again at the forefront, too, but the race for the Queens and Long Island swing seat also turned on hard-to-replicate local issues. The candidates were competing to replace George Santos, a serial fabulist who made the district a national laughingstock, and an Election Day snowstorm gave Suozzi an 11th-hour boost.

The outcome will narrow Republicans’ paper-thin House majority, but that party also emerged with reasons for optimism as they prepare for fall races in districts like this one where President Joe Biden is unpopular.

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Here are five takeaways from the results.

A New Democratic Playbook on Immigration

Democrats have struggled for years to mount a defense against Republican attacks when it comes to immigration and illegal crossings at the southern border. Suozzi may have just helped write a playbook for how to do it, especially in a handful of crucial House contests around New York.

The issue had all the makings of a political storm. Illegal border crossings reached an all-time high in December, and the arrival of more than 170,000 migrants in New York City has brought the sense of chaos close to home.

Rather than shrink from the issue, though, Suozzi made the migrant crisis a centerpiece of his campaign. He called for Biden to close the border and went on local news to call for the deportation of a group of migrant men charged with assaulting police officers in Times Square.

When his opponent, Mazi Pilip, condemned a bipartisan Senate deal that included stiff border security provisions that conservatives had demanded, Suozzi went on the attack, accusing her of putting partisanship over national security.

“People want to say immigration is a Republican issue, abortion is a Democratic issue,” he said. “These are the issues people care about.”

The Republican House Majority Just Got Narrower

Speaker Mike Johnson was already struggling to steer his unwieldy majority in Washington. It’s about to get a lot harder.

When Suozzi takes the oath of office in the coming weeks, Republicans will outnumber Democrats in the House 219-213. That means Republican leaders can afford to lose only two votes on any partisan bill.

The difference could significantly trim the sails of Republicans’ election-year ambitions, including the potential impeachment of Biden. It will also affect their bargaining leverage in negotiations to try to avert a government shutdown in March.

Experience Still Matters, and Voters Liked Bipartisanship

They are two of the most pejorative words in an election campaign: “career politician.” But they may have helped put Suozzi over the top.

Suozzi, 61, has spent nearly three decades in public office. With wars raging overseas and Americans groping for normalcy as the COVID pandemic recedes, he cast himself as a tested lawmaker ready to step in and work across the aisle on immigration and on one of the suburban district’s top priorities: repealing the cap on the state and local tax deduction, or SALT.

“People are sick and tired of the extremism and the finger-pointing,” he said repeatedly. “And nothing is getting done.”

There were some costs. Republicans mined Suozzi’s record to produce a series of damaging ads that portrayed him as weak on immigration and border security.

But in a truncated race, Suozzi made up for them with a deep knowledge of policy, as well as an understanding of Long Island’s unique breed of socially liberal, tax-hating moderates. He deftly targeted smaller immigrant communities, and knew when to stick with his party and when to distance himself.

Pilip, a 44-year-old Black immigrant and Israeli military veteran, offered voters another attractive quality in politics: a fresh face free of political baggage. But her inexperience showed. She floundered through the only debate, giving tangled answers on abortion rights and gun safety, and telling voters they would just have to trust her ability to deliver on other issues, like the SALT deduction.

An Ill-Timed Snowstorm Helped Democrats

An Election Day snowstorm blanketed much of the district in half a foot of snow Tuesday, with the heaviest precipitation falling through the morning. Turnout plunged, and it disproportionately hurt Republicans.

That is because Democrats tend to participate in early and absentee voting in greater numbers, and had banked an early lead. In this case, Suozzi began Tuesday with thousands of votes banked.

Republicans have more than made it up in prior Election Days, when they dominate the in-person vote. But with roads covered and school canceled, there was simply not enough time for Nassau County’s vaunted Republican machine to close the gap. Evidently even private snow plows hired by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, was not enough.

Santos’ Shadow Still Hurt Republicans

Santos was not on the ballot. By his own account, he did not even vote for a successor. But Democrats involved in the race said the federally indicted serial liar turned out to be one of their biggest turnout machines.

Republican leaders broke with Santos a year ago and had hoped that the House’s vote to expel him in December would finally put him out of mind.

Voters were not so quick to turn the page. Many said they were particularly put off by Pilip’s under-the-radar campaign. Suozzi reinforced their worry, calling her “Santos 2.0.”

“There’s a whole bunch of people who didn’t vote last time who realized their vote matters,” said Howard Kroplink, 74, a Democrat who voted for Suozzi.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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