Reflections on the special election


It isn’t often that a congressional race becomes the center of national attention. But that was the case in the campaign between Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip to succeed the disgraced George Santos in the 3rd Congressional District.

In less than 12 months in office, Santos became a joke — a very sick joke. After the House of Representatives voted to expel him in December, Gov. Kathy Hochul set a special election for Feb. 13.

Under state election law, candidates in a special election are selected by party leaders. Not surprisingly, Democrats selected Tom Suozzi, a seasoned veteran of the political wars who had represented the district in Congress for three terms before giving up his seat to make an unsuccessful gubernatorial primary run against Hochul in 2022.

Nassau GOP Chairman Joe Cairo set up a selection committee (that I was part of) that interviewed 22 potential candidates, and overwhelmingly recommended Pilip. Not wanting to repeat the Santos calamity, Cairo had Pilip vetted by several firms, and she passed with flying colors.

Ordinarily it would be a gamble for a relative newcomer who had served barely one term in the County Legislature to run against a veteran like Suozzi, but Pilip personified the American dream. She’d escaped from Ethiopia to Israel with her family when she was 12, and served in an elite parachute unit in the Israel Defense Forces. She was highly educated, married a Ukrainian cardiologist, moved to the United States and raised seven children in Great Neck. She was the first Republican ever re-elected in the 10th Legislative District.

Pilip was the new running against the old. She was coming off a solid victory against the odds in a Democratic district, while Suozzi had lost badly to Hochul in the primary. Pilip was the legal immigrant who supported strong border security, challenging the candidate of the party that had allowed more than 8 million illegal migrants into the country, many of whom were overwhelming New York City and the parts of Queens that fall in the 3rd District. She was the candidate who was endorsed by the Border Patrol Agents’ union, while Suozzi had recently boasted of throwing Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Nassau County when he was county executive. Pilip, a trained soldier, supported strong defense at a time when Israel was at war with Hamas, Russia had invaded Ukraine and China was threatening Taiwan.

Though the Democrats had a significant registration edge over Republicans, 39 percent to 28 percent, President Biden’s popularity was at record lows, and Suozzi was on record saying he supported Biden “100 percent.”

Pilip campaigned tirelessly, and was making strong inroads. Suozzi countered by separating himself from prevailing Democratic positions on immigration, border security and support for police and didn’t seek Biden’s endorsement.

In the campaign’s closing days, every published poll had the race within the margin of error. A Republican poll had Pilip up by 5 points. Suozzi never got above 50 percent in any poll, a bad sign for a virtual incumbent. Democratic sources and some friendly reporters told me there was real concern in the Suozzi camp right up to Election Day. When the numbers were in, though, Suozzi won, 54 percent to 46 percent.

It’s still early, but my preliminary thoughts are that:

The snowstorm on Election Day hurt Republicans, but not enough to make the difference.

Suozzi effectively managed to separate himself in the eyes of the voters from the sins of his party on immigration and support for the police.

Democratic congressional campaign committees provided extensive financial support to Suozzi early on.

Though Pilip actually garnered a higher percentage of votes against Suozzi than former President Donald Trump did against Biden in 2020, she couldn’t overcome the built-in Democratic registration edge.

Cairo and the Nassau Republican organization worked hard and effectively, but Pilip didn’t receive financial support from national Republicans comparable to what Suozzi received from Democrats.

Pilip was handicapped by having to campaign against the backdrop of the antics of congressional Republicans like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green, who come across as a gang that can’t shoot straight.

Suozzi won. No complaints. No excuses. But Pilip ran an excellent and courageous campaign, and has an excellent political future.

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? pking@