New York 3 Special: Immigration Dominates Campaign Messaging

by Jacob Rubashkin February 6, 2024 · 5:14 PM EST

GLEN COVE, N.Y.— Tom Suozzi may be a political institution here on the North Shore of Long Island. But the upcoming special election feels like a home game for Republicans when it comes to the messaging.

The contest to replace the expelled GOP Rep. George Santos, is between Suozzi, who was born to a political family and has served the area as a mayor, county executive, and congressman, and Republican nominee Mazi Pilip, a Nassau County legislator.

The two don’t have much in common. Pilip was evacuated from Ethiopia to Israel as a child along with 14,000 other Ethiopian Jews, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces. She immigrated to America in 2005, 11 years after Suozzi won his first election on Long Island, and did not enter politics until 2021.

But they do share one surprising thing: their party registration. Both are registered Democrats.

Despite that commonality, neither candidate seems particularly focused on other Democratic voters in their paid media communication. Instead, the brief special election has been dominated by appeals to Republicans. Pilip is leaning heavily on the red-meat issue of immigration and tightly embracing other local Republicans to rally support from her party’s base.

Suozzi, too, often sounds as if he’s speaking to Republicans. Not the GOP rank-and-file, but more conservative-minded independents and even registered Democrats who have soured on the party in recent years and are the engine of the GOP’s resurgence on Long Island.

For Pilip and her allies, immigration has become almost the singular selling point in the race against Suozzi.

Republicans have spent nearly $5 million on television ads in this race, and every single one of their spots — from the Congressional Leadership Fund, National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Pilip campaign — hit Suozzi on immigration issues. One of them uses familiar imagery of tattooed members of the MS-13 gang that Republicans have used in other races around the country in previous cycles.

Pilip, who was virtually unknown in the district prior to her selection as the party’s nominee, has even eschewed any traditional introductory advertising in favor of devoting all her firepower to the immigration message.

In an interview, Pilip pushed back on the notion that she was speaking only to Republican voters. “Republican, Democrat, independent, they all want change,” she told Inside Elections. 

But she kept relentless focus on immigration, referring back to the border throughout the conversation, accusing Suozzi of “opening the border” while in Congress. “Right now we have a border crisis, it’s unreal.” 

Pilip also pushed back forcefully on Democrats’ abortion attacks in starkly personal terms, defending her pro-life stance but arguing that she would not support a federal abortion ban.

“I’m not going to support a national abortion ban,” she declared.

“How does a man, [Suozzi], that’s never been pregnant, can even think he would know better than me?,” asked Pilip. “Seven babies I had to carry, I know the risk I took. My last pregnancy, my twin girls, I was sick, and a tough decision I had to make. He will tell me what’s women’s rights, what pregnancy is about? He will tell me what risks a woman is taking when she decided to be pregnant? Shame on him, that he thinks he knows better than me what womens’ healthcare is about.”

But unlike in other races in which Republicans have used paid media to try to neutralize Democratic attacks on abortion, Pilip has not, choosing instead to engage on the issue only in the handful of interviews she’s given throughout the election.

That the GOP would have such intense focus on immigration is unsurprising. It’s an issue that has propelled Nassau County Republicans to victories in every election since 2020, and Long Island’s proximity to New York City ensures that even the stories that don’t always touch the district’s residents in their daily lives end up in front of them on TV.

“The whole Democratic brand has taken a hit on Long Island,” said former North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman to Inside Elections. “We’re very much part of the New York City media region,” said Kaiman, who ran in the 3rd District Democratic primary in 2022, “so we see what’s happening in the city, some of the extremes that local political folks in the city are taking, and that’s taking a toll out here.”

Kaiman speaks from experience. Last year, he unsuccessfully ran for his old job, which he had won by healthy margins four times in the 2000s. But North Hempstead instead re-elected its incumbent GOP supervisor by a wide margin, only the second time in 34 years that a Republican has won that office.

“Long Island is a tough place right now for Democrats,” said one senior New York Democratic consultant. “You’ve seen years of Republicans demagoguing on immigration, with MS-13 mail in peoples’ mailboxes, and that’s an issue that has come home tangibly.”

In a low-turnout special election, some Democrats are worried that Suozzi’s decision to spend so much time on an issue Republicans have monopolized could have electoral repercussions.

“Tom may run the risk of not mobilizing Democrats,” a well-connected Long Island Democratic operative told Inside Elections over omelets and orange juice at a diner just off Northern Boulevard. “He’s currently focused on reaching Republicans.”

“Suozzi has been pretty clear in his decision to play a very strong decision persuasion game and try to win back the middle of the electorate, as opposed to more progressive language,” said another New York Democratic consultant with experience in special elections. 

“The best way to win is to motivate your side, because there are very few special election persuadable voters in New York State. But Suozzi clearly believes that the way to lose this district is to be a traditional democrat in all shapes and forms,” the consultant told Inside Elections. “I don’t think it’s a mistake but I think it’s a fascinating strategy nonetheless.”

The majority of Suozzi’s broadcast TV ads have centered on immigration and the border. His most frequently run commercial, which his campaign has spent $650,000 promoting, features a clip of Suozzi praising Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Fox News; the narrator extols Suozzi’s bipartisan approach to border security as images of coiled barbed wire flash by.

“The focus has to be broader,” one longtime Democratic activist and local Nassau official told Inside Elections. “We have to talk about climate, womens’ rights, voting rights…He’s got to be a team player with the Democrats, not the Republicans.”

“All he talks about is Peter King,” complained the activist, pointing to Suozzi’s frequent reference to a New York Times op-ed he wrote with the former Republican congressman (who supports Pilip) on immigration reform. “So what does Peter King do? He goes out and holds a big thing against Suozzi. You can’t have it both ways.”

Suozzi’s other main TV ad features his work on veterans’ issues, and he has run cable ads and sent mailers about his support for Israel and backing from environmental groups. Outside Democratic organizations have run ads about abortion hitting Pilip for her pro-life stance, but have also promoted Suozzi’s work on immigration in positive commercials, which are more uncommon for independent expenditure groups to air.

Suozzi’s campaign declined repeated requests for an interview with Inside Elections. But he has plenty of defenders in the district.

“Tom may be the only Democratic candidate who can win this district,” said former Nassau County executive Laura Curran over lunch at a diner in Baldwin, just south of the district. Curran experienced firsthand the strength of Republican messaging on crime during her re-election campaign in 2021. Despite trashing state legislative Democrats’ bail reform bill and earning the endorsements of several police unions, Curran lost by less than a point.

In the run-up to that race, some progressive organizers fretted that Curran was alienating rank-and-file Democratic voters — similar to what some strategists now say about Suozzi. But Curran still thinks he’s taking the right approach.

"The 'Republican issues,’ crime, immigration, are the issues that Nassau County voters care about,” said Curran. In Nassau County, “Democratic candidates who run on progressive issues lose by even more than the ones who don't."