Migrant Crisis Complicates Democrats’ Bid to Regain George Santos’ Seat

Wesley Bell, a city councilman in Ferguson, speaks about the reasons the council voted to approve a revised version of the Justice Department agreement at the Ferguson Community Center in Ferguson, Mo., on Feb. 9, 2016. (Dan Gill/The New York Times)
Wesley Bell, a city councilman in Ferguson, speaks about the reasons the council voted to approve a revised version of the Justice Department agreement at the Ferguson Community Center in Ferguson, Mo., on Feb. 9, 2016. (Dan Gill/The New York Times)

BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Just two months ago, George Santos’ expulsion from the House looked like everything Democrats could have asked for. It gave them an open Republican seat in a winnable New York district, with an electorate still reeling from the congressman’s spectacular unraveling.

The party even had a name-brand candidate, Tom Suozzi, who had won the seat easily three times before.

But with less than a week to go before the Feb. 13 special House election, a wave of suburban discontent fueled by the crush of migrants arriving at the southern border and in New York City has helped transform a potential Democratic pickup into a statistical dead heat.

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“If I run my campaign and just say, ‘I’m Tom Suozzi, I’m a Democrat and my opponent is a Republican,’ I’ll lose this race,” Suozzi told union carpenters Saturday at a rally on Long Island. “People are upset Democrats haven’t been tough enough on things like the border.”

“Exactly!” “That’s right!” “Yes, sir,” some in the crowd hollered in approval.

“I’m tougher than you’ll ever be,” Suozzi razzed back.

Republicans would disagree. They have seized on the issue in a vivid preview of their strategy for the November general election, spending millions of dollars blanketing the Queens and Long Island swing district in ads creating an image of Suozzi as a feckless proponent of open borders.

The issue’s growing dominance in the contest was obvious Wednesday, when Mazi Pilip, a little-known county legislator running on the Republican line, stood outside a migrant shelter in Queens to accept the federal Border Patrol union’s endorsement.

“Joe Biden and Tom Suozzi have brought the border crisis to our front door,” she said, gesturing at tents erected to house some of the more than 170,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived in the city since 2022.

Both parties see echoes of that year’s midterm elections, when Republicans were able to harness fears about crime to defy national trends and sweep congressional swing seats across New York.

But this time around, Suozzi, a centrist Democrat and deft campaigner, has refused to cede the narrative, turning an issue often shunned by his party into a centerpiece of his campaign.

At events across the district, he has bucked liberal orthodoxy to call on President Joe Biden to lock down the border. He said a group of migrant men charged with assaulting police officers in Times Square should be deported: “That’s outrageous. Kick ’em out!”

And when he sensed his opponent may have overplayed her hand by rejecting a conservative bipartisan deal to ramp up deportations and harden the border, Suozzi accused her of putting political interests over national security. She had called the bill “the legalization of the invasion of our country.”

“This is a pretty good indication of what this whole race has been about,” Suozzi retorted Monday. “I want to have bipartisan solutions to the problems we face, and my opponent is taking Republican talk points from extremists.”

The debate had helped inject the off-cycle contest with unusual significance. Democrats hope Suozzi can narrow Republicans’ slim House majority and help write a playbook for the path back to power in November. But a Republican victory in a district Biden won by eight points would send an ominous warning about who voters believe is to blame.

Immigration is far from the only issue shaping the race. Both candidates are also competing to show who is the stronger defender of Israel, public safety and the state and local tax deduction that is sacrosanct to affluent suburban homeowners here.

Democrats have spent $13 million — twice as much as Republicans — to attack Pilip’s personal opposition to abortion (she has said she would oppose a national abortion ban, though), her support for former President Donald Trump and her proclivity for ducking reporters and debates.

But immigration has eclipsed them all. A plurality of voters in polls have identified the issue as their top concern, and appear ready to blame Biden and his party. Surveys show Suozzi is the only major Democratic figure with a net positive approval rating in the district; Biden’s approval rating is just over 30%.

Voters here are watching not just record illegal crossings at the border, fueled by massive migrations of Venezuelans, Central Americans and others, but also a smaller influx occurring in their own backyards.

“It’s bail reform all over again,” said Laura Curran, the former Nassau County executive, referring to the rallying cry used by Republicans to help sweep nearly every major Democratic figure on Long Island out of office since 2021, including her.

“This is a test of how tough it is for Democrats,” Curran continued. “Could it be that an unknown Republican beats a respected and well-known Democrat, who has had cross-party support over the decades?”

Suozzi, 61, has a long history of breaking from his party as a mayor, Nassau County executive and member of Congress. It has made him deeply popular among moderate voters, and produced helpful precedents to point to on the campaign trail, like an immigration overhaul he proposed with Peter King, a former Republican congressman, in 2019.

The attempt to separate himself from his party now amounts to a risky gamble, particularly in the type of special election where candidates usually win or lose based on how well they motivate their most loyal voters. But in an interview, Suozzi said ignoring issues like immigration and crime would be political and governmental malpractice.

He might have gotten a lifeline this week, when a bipartisan group of senators announced that after months of work, they had struck just the kind of immigration deal he has campaigned on.

The bill would make it more difficult to claim asylum, expand detention capacity and effectively shut down the border if unlawful crossings go too high — precisely what Republicans have been demanding. But Republicans proceeded to throw it away, evidently more concerned about handing Biden an election-year victory than winning the policy fight.

Pilip, who immigrated from Israel, said she would prefer an even more stringent House border package that Senate Democrats have called dead on arrival.

The question is whether his approach will be enough in the face of a daily onslaught of headlines from New York City about the costs of the migrant crisis. Just this week, the police commissioner said a “wave of migrant crime” had “washed” over the city — the latest statement from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration reinforcing Republicans’ claims that the situation has grown out of control on Democrats’ watch.

Suozzi’s long record has not always made his task easier. Republican ad makers have inundated voters with a statistic showing that the Democrat voted with Biden 100% of the time, and selectively highlighted other votes where he opposed Republican measures to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration agents.

The most frequent attack features a clip of Suozzi bragging during an ill-fated 2022 campaign for governor that he had “kicked ICE out of Nassau County.”

Suozzi has explained that he moved against the group, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, only after its agents drew weapons on Nassau County police officers. As a congressman, he denounced calls by fellow Democrats to abolish the agency.

But strategists in both parties said research showed that the ad had hurt Suozzi’s image. One likened it to 2022, when Republicans blanketed a nearby suburban district with ads about Sean Patrick Maloney’s endorsing changes that would relax New York’s bail laws; Maloney, then the national Democratic campaign chair, lost in an upset.

In interviews across the district, voters appeared to be divided.

“Tom Suozzi had his opportunity to prove himself,” said Michelle Green, 62, a retired teacher from Great Neck who considers herself an independent.

“We really need a change,” she said. “It’s scary, the open borders.”

But in Bethpage, where close to 1,000 carpenters showed up to knock on doors for Suozzi, the candidate was making headway — at least with one voter.

Kenneth Salgado, a carpenter who considers himself a Democrat but voted for Trump, approached Suozzi with a single question: Would he support shutting down the border?

Salgado, 30, liked what he heard.

“People are taking our jobs and doing stupid crimes,” he said, adding that he worried off-the-books migrant labor would undermine union work. “I’ll vote for him just for that sole purpose.”

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