Migrant-Crisis Fearmongering Wasn’t Enough to Hold George Santos’s Old Seat

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Republicans famously hate “snowflakes”—overly fragile liberals who can’t handle any political heat. Some of the un-American, lily-livered ideas that snowflakes support include early-voting periods and mail-in ballots. The Republican Party, thanks to Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, actively discourages its supporters from voting in these easy and convenient ways. And so, going into Election Day on Tuesday, February 13th, Mazi Pilip, the Republican candidate in the special election to fill George Santos’s vacated seat in the House, was already behind; she needed a strong turnout to make up for the Democratic Party’s edge in early-voting numbers. Unfortunately, for her, a snowstorm—a real one—blanketed New York’s Third Congressional District on Tuesday morning. In desperation, a Republican super PAC hired private plowing companies to clear certain streets. “They’re plowing around key Republican precinct areas,” a spokesperson for the super PAC told Politico. But the snowflakes prevailed, and Pilip lost to her opponent, the Democrat Tom Suozzi, by roughly eight points—the same margin with which the district had gone for Joe Biden in 2020, and for Santos in 2022.

Pilip had been handpicked by the local Republican Party machine, which has been trying hard to shed its reputation as the gang that brought the world Santos: an incorrigible grifter who managed to get himself kicked out of a Congress otherwise stuffed full of opportunists, conspiracists, manipulators, and insurrectionists, and who is now facing federal fraud charges. (Santos has denied criminal wrongdoing.) Pilip, an Orthodox Jew, born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel—where she served as a gunsmith in an I.D.F. paratrooper brigade—has the kind of background that Santos could only invent. For weeks, Republicans had been hyping her chances, and the national press had been taking her seriously as a candidate, despite her inexperience and stiffness as a campaigner. “When it comes to abortion, every woman should have that choice to make,” she said last week during a debate with Suozzi, before declaring, incongruously, “I’m pro-life.” Suozzi, standing a few feet away, suppressed a smile.

In retrospect, Suozzi had obvious advantages in the race, despite the fact that he was running to flip a seat. He has been a fixture in New York State politics for roughly thirty years, pitching pliable centrism to affluent suburban voters: he was against same-sex marriage before he was for it, and he has called for “common sense” compromises on abortion. He previously represented the Third District, which currently covers parts of Nassau County and a slice of northeastern Queens, for six years in Congress. He and his party outspent Pilip and the Republicans nearly two to one. Yet, in the campaign’s closing days, two issues in particular made people think that Pilip might have a chance: migrants and Israel. The idea was that Third District voters were the kind of people who were angry at Biden and his party’s response to the influx of migrants at the southern border (and the related migrant crisis in New York City), as well as the Democrats’ response to Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza. Pilip was seemingly well positioned to speak to both topics. She had been airlifted to Israel as a child as part of Operation Solomon, and has talked about getting involved in politics after growing worried about whether her teen-age son would be safe wearing a Star of David necklace. (She wore one herself during campaign appearances.) And yet, despite her life experience, Pilip mostly offered voters the same tired, hateful talking points they can get from any number of white, male Republicans. “Millions make their way,” she said at the debate last week, when asked about the migrant crisis. “We don’t know if they’re criminals, we don’t know if they’re terrorists, we don’t know who they are.” She also made much of an old Suozzi quote that he had “kicked” Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Nassau when he was county executive, but Suozzi didn’t shrink from the fight; he said that he had been following the advice of his police commissioner, who’d been having trouble with reckless ICE agents breaking down doors at wrong addresses, and pulling guns on local cops. “In 2018, when I was in Congress, I was one of only eighteen Democrats that voted to fund ICE,” he told Pilip at the debate. “So [for] you to suggest that I am a member of the Squad is about as believable as you being a member of George Santos’s volleyball team.”

On Wednesday, Democrats were claiming to have learned something from Suozzi’s victory. “It’s a very interesting lesson to Democrats that you can escape your opponent’s attacks on immigration by not only leaning into the issue but doubling down on it,” the former congressman Steve Israel told the Times. “Instead of trying to pivot around the issue, he charged into it.” Meanwhile, in Washington, Republicans were also charging into the issue. Just before the polls closed in the Third District, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, as a way of drawing attention to the situation at the southern border.

A 2010 paper in Legislative Studies Quarterly found that, when a party flips a seat in a special election, its supporters can feel optimistic about how things might go in the next general election: from 1900 to 2008, when Democrats took seats from Republicans in special elections, they gained seats in the subsequent general election eighty-two per cent of the time. Others view the data as too contingent and unreliable to make extrapolations. “Special electorates bear no resemblance to the general electorate or the broader pool of registered voters,” the Times’s Nate Cohn wrote earlier this month. “They may offer insight into which party’s activist base is more energized, but not much more.”

The special election in the Third District was always going to be a weird one. Santos was just the third member of the House to be expelled since the Civil War. His lies and cons were so outlandish that he became a national obsession, and his story will haunt the area’s politics for years. “Santos did major damage to our reputation as a voting bloc,” an audience member named Ilana told Suozzi and Pilip at last week’s debate. “If you are elected, what will you do to restore integrity and civic responsibility to the role?” (As if elected representatives in every other district in the country were demonstrating integrity and civic responsibility.) On Tuesday, the Mayorkas impeachment prevailed by a single vote—the House Majority Leader Steve Scalise had to return from cancer treatment to push the matter through. “I’ve heard the votes are tight,” Scalise, holding a face mask, told a reporter, as he entered the Capitol. “Every vote is going to matter around here.” In recent years, Republicans have often argued that voters should be given a chance to weigh in before Congress takes consequential steps, like confirming a nominee to the Supreme Court or impeaching a holder of high office. But it didn’t wait for the voters of the Third District. Suozzi will now head to Washington and make a tight House even tighter. ♦

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