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Opinion: George Santos was a disaster. Here’s what the race to succeed him looks like

Opinion by Lawrence C. Levy

(CNN) — Massive media coverage from around the world. Mountains of money from deep-pocketed donors. A clash of ideology on the most contentious issues – immigration, abortion, guns, inflation and even the Israel-Hamas war.

And, of course, the lingering stain of one George Anthony Devolder Santos.

The names on New York’s 3rd Congressional District special election ballot this Tuesday, February 13, may be Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Pilip, an intriguing enough match-up between two people with very different political experience and personal stories. Add the infamy of the former congressman, and you’d expect the race to replace him would attract more attention than most off-season contests.

But this furious campaign sprint continues to astound in terms of its intensity and interest. That’s because the race remains about more than succeeding the indicted former lawmaker or judging the worthiness of these particular candidates (Suozzi, a moderate from an Italian-American political dynasty; Pilip, a Black and Jewish Ethiopian who migrated to Israel and served in its military before coming to the US).

Even after the race gained more urgency for House Republicans last week following their failed attempt to pass a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas by single votes – prompting Santos to post on X, “Miss me yet?”– the contest is still about more than just winning an extra seat.

The outcome could preview the parties’ prospects with the nation’s most decisive voting bloc – moderate “swing” suburbanites like those who dominate this New York district, which covers parts of Nassau and Queens counties. The result will also signal how the campaigns’ strategies and tactics may play around the country in the few dozen competitive districts that will determine who gets the gavels in Congress and even the keys to the White House come November.

As evidenced by the ferocity of the race and torrent of money for Suozzi and Pilip, most of which has flown in from outside the district, both national parties and their supporters have embraced it and its challenges as a bellwether with consequences far beyond its boundaries.

Both candidates have focused most of their firepower, in ads and during Thursday’s debate, on scorching the other as an extremist. That makes sense, because swing suburbanites tend to shy away from extremism of any stripe. And both are using the issue that seems to have eclipsed all others – immigration – to make their case.

Not that Suozzi, who held this seat for three terms, hasn’t tried to reignite abortion rights as an issue; based on polling and debate coverage, he has succeeded to some degree. A majority of likely voters prefer his pro-choice position, according to a Newsday/Siena College poll released this week.

But Pilip forced Suozzi on the defensive by devoting substantial airtime to blaming him and other Democrats for the border crisis. A pro-Pilip super PAC is splurging $1.35 million on a TV ad to be aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl. The 30-second spot claims (without offering proof) that Suozzi is “soft on immigration and tough on taxpayers” while showing footage of migrants kicking two police officers in Times Square.

Polls indicate that the immigration-centered attacks have been successful in driving down his credibility on the issue.

Then, as if justifying the fears of many Republicans that Donald Trump could hurt their “down-ballot” candidates in suburban districts where he has not done well, the former president handed Suozzi a gift. By killing the bi-partisan legislation to deal with immigration problems to deprive President Joe Biden of a political victory, Trump gave Suozzi the chance to play up his credentials as a moderate who works across the aisle “to get things done.” At the same time, it let him cast Pilip – who said she opposed the compromise – as a “MAGA extremist.”

Another complication for Democrats in this district and others is the Israel-Hamas war. The district is home to one of the heaviest concentration of Jews in any congressional district, an estimated 117,000. Pilip is an Orthodox Jew, a voting bloc that, like White Evangelicals, has become reliably Republican. Will she be able to increase their turnout through religious affinity? And as concerns grow among some Jews about the support of young and progressive Democrats for Palestinians, will Suozzi lose support among the majority of the more liberal Jewish community who still tend to vote Democratic?

Suozzi not only has to keep Jewish Democrats and independents in line – and he even made a trip to Israel after October 7 to show his allegiance – but he also has to worry about losing support among young progressives and yet another Democratic voting bloc, the roughly 17,000 Muslims in the district. His success or failure could provide guidance to other suburban Democrats with large Jewish population.

As a reflection of the race’s closeness, Republican and Democratic donors have opened the spigots. And while Suozzi is still expected to outraise Pilip, and so far he has, according to Federal Election Commission records, it looks like the overall spending could reach $20 million, as some analysts predicted.

In one sense, though, all this spending hasn’t bought the candidates much. The few published polls from credible organizations show that the race has remained within the margin of error since the start.

None of these polls were conducted before Thursday’s only debate, which – at least based on media coverage – allowed Suozzi to display his superior experience and expertise on a range of issues. As the New York Times’ Nicholas Fandos noted, Pilip, who has served only two years in the Nassau County legislature, displayed “moments where she looked particularly unseasoned for a congressional candidate in a major race.”

But local Republicans said they were thrilled with her performance because she “didn’t back down” when aggressively challenged on the clarity of her positions (or lack of solutions). They felt that all she needed to do was show she could “stand toe to toe” with the more polished opponent and keep trying to link the moderate Suozzi to the unpopular Biden and the progressive wing of the party whose positions have proven unpopular with suburban swing voters. They also felt, with some justification, that their “ground game” will overcome the Democratic advantage in advertising volume and endorsements – as it has on Long Island in the past few election cycles.

In a glimpse of how candidates in competitive districts may treat the top of their ticket, Suozzi seems to have distanced himself from Biden in criticizing the president on border security and rejecting even the thought of requesting him to campaign in the district; and Pilip, who this week said she voted for Trump in 2020 and would welcome a campaign appearance, hasn’t run any ads touting the connection. Neither standard-bearer is particularly popular in this district, with the suburbs being a particular problem for Trump since 2020.

Another name that hasn’t surfaced much after initial efforts by the Democrats to gain traction with it is Santos himself. Republicans are hoping, once and for all, that victory will remove the stain of their complicity with his candidacy, however inadvertent. Democrats hope that just enough voters will be leery of another relatively unknown quantity and won’t have to be reminded – much – of why this election was necessary in the first place.

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