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Opinion: Voters elect the anti-George Santos to send a message to Washington

Opinion by Max Burns

(CNN) — The Democrats’ winning streak continues. Despite concerns about President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and inability to pull away from leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the polls, the Democrats claimed another victory in a closely watched off-cycle race.

Long Island isn’t normally considered the center of political gravity for the nation. But then in 2022, the bombastic Republican George Santos won the House seat in New York’s 3rd District in an upset victory that shocked the state’s political watchers.

Little did anyone in Great Neck know that the George Santos show would become an early contender for the scandal of the decade and Santos would be expelled on ethics violations within a year of winning office, ushering in a special election Tuesday to replace him. Almost everything about Santos’ public biography turned out to be untrue, or suspect.

That’s made this true swing district a bellwether for the 2024 election. The candidates on both sides — Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Pilip — tacked toward the middle and largely focused on national issues such as immigration, abortion and crime while millions in campaign cash flowed into the district. Suozzi struck a tough tone on immigration, while Pilip seemed to drag her feet in acknowledging she had voted for Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

Suozzi raised over $4.5 million in the last four months of the campaign, alongside an eye-popping $12.3 million in spending from outside groups on both sides. Even Pilip, a first-time candidate only nominated after a costly and brutal internal party battle, raked in $1.3 million. For locals, Tuesday will thankfully bring an end to the $22 million in television ads that have blanketed Long Island for months.

Suozzi’s victory demonstrates that even with voter attention on issues like immigration and crime that generally play well for Republicans, Democrats don’t need to worry they can’t win in this environment. It likely didn’t hurt that the Republicans in power now have been making headlines for infighting, gridlock and dysfunction.

Significantly, after hammering away about a crisis at the southern border, the House GOP followed Trump’s command to kill the Senate’s bipartisan compromise on immigration, instead impeaching Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas by the narrowest of margins. It’s a move sure to be defeated in the Senate and leave Congress without any accomplishments on immigration.

Suozzi staked his campaign on the theory that voters would blame Republicans for two years of incompetence in Congress and the growing extremism of Trump’s rhetoric. He also wielded Republicans’ failure to pass a border bill as a political weapon, lambasting the GOP’s dysfunctionality while criticizing Pilip for waffling on the issue. Suozzi continued that theme into his victory speech on Tuesday night, emphasizing that voters want politicians who will fix problems. “The people of Long Island and Queens are sick and tired of the political bickering. They’ve had it,” he declared.

Indeed, the result is also a major blow to Johnson, who has seen his already razor-thin 219-212 majority whittled down by yet another critical vote. Johnson badly needed a reliable vote in Pilip. Instead, he’s now likely to face even more scathing criticism from Republican colleagues who are already skeptical of his ability to deliver wins. Suozzi’s victory allows Johnson virtually no margin for error as he struggles to navigate an increasingly complex legislative landscape.

Meanwhile, Democrats can credibly claim to have the momentum going into the general election. Suozzi’s win caps off two years in which Democrats have outperformed expectations at the ballot box and delivered surprise losses to incumbent Republicans. It also offers Democrats a big win after a week that saw Biden on the defensive over renewed concerns about his age.

Still, it would be a mistake to see the results as only indicative of national trends. Progressive Democrats laid the blame for Santos’ election and Republicans’ strong 2022 performance squarely at the feet of New York state Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs. New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Jacobs of costing Democrats the House in 2022 thanks to party mismanagement and poor strategy. Jacobs struck a defiant tone at the time, refusing calls from hundreds of party members to resign.

After all, the district is left-leaning, and Democrats generally outnumber Republicans among the key early voting demographic. What’s more, President Joe Biden won the district by 8 points in 2020. Santos initially lost to then-incumbent Rep. Suozzi in 2020 by 12 points before riding to victory two years later when Suozzi gave up the seat to run unsuccessfully for governor. Republicans last held the seat in 2010.

And of course you can’t discount the specific candidates themselves. As a first-time congressional candidate facing a Democratic funding juggernaut, Pilip was outmatched by Suozzi at the debate and in field operations. By comparison, Suozzi’s team spent much of the last year laying the groundwork for a full-throttle campaign that played out on the congressman-elect’s old turf. After an eventful year and a half of Santos, voters were justifiably afraid of gambling on yet another political newcomer.

Perhaps burned by the experience of an unvetted Santos, the relative newcomer Pilip couldn’t win the argument that the district needed another fresh face. It won’t be lost on Biden that voters are once again showing their willingness to stick with familiar names and veteran politicians in a campaign season marked by political upheaval. In the future, expect to see more swing-state Democrats borrowing from Suozzi’s playbook.

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