Democrats believe they finally have an opening with voters to neutralize their vulnerabilities on immigration now that Republicans have torpedoed a bipartisan asylum and border security measure. And they’re eager to use it.
“The only silver lining here is that we have come to a final conclusion about the Republican position on the border: They’re pro-chaos,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the lead negotiator of the rejected deal, who is urging all Democrats to go on offense with the issue. “They cannot imagine a world in which the problem was fixed. They would not know what to do the next morning if there was not a crisis on the border to talk about and point about.”
That opening comes as the influx of migrants has dominated a hotly contested special election to replace former GOP Rep. George Santos in New York’s 3rd District, which has flipped between the parties in recent years.
The Senate deal, which would have toughened asylum laws and granted new authority to close the border, imploded just one week before Tuesday’s special election in the Long Island-based district after many Republicans came out against it.
And former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is seeking a comeback, wasted no time seizing on Republican Mazi Pilip’s opposition to the deal during their first and only debate on Thursday night.
“Unfortunately my opponent has embraced the extremism. She says she’s concerned about the border but she opposes the bipartisan solution that would actually close the border,” Suozzi said just 10 seconds into his opening statement during the News12 New York debate.
Suozzi has gone on offense on border security after facing a barrage of attacks on the issue. Democrats are looking to flip the district, which President Joe Biden won by 8 points in 2020, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections.
The New York special election on Tuesday will present an early glimpse of a dynamic that’s playing out in swing districts across the country. Democratic candidates are shedding their skittishness about border security and pouncing on GOP opposition to a conservative immigration deal, accusing the party of refusing to solve a problem on orders from former President Donald Trump, who said his party should sink the deal unless it was “perfect.”
“I just think the fact that we can openly talk about it now and not be so squeamish is a gift from Trump,” said one Democratic strategist, who said the message “reinforces one of the public biases in our favor: GOP is chaos.”
A Newsday/Siena College poll released Thursday found Suozzi leading Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, by just 4 percentage points, which is within the survey’s margin of error. Suozzi entered the race with high name recognition, representing a previous version of the district for three terms in Congress before leaving the House to make an unsuccessful run for governor last year.
But the poll found likely voters, by a 9-point margin, say Pilip would better address the migrant crisis.
“The bottom line is the Democratic brand is not strong on that issue,” Suozzi said in a phone interview Thursday. “The fact that my head is above water here and I’m leading in the polls is because I’ve specifically pushed that I want to solve this problem, that I’m willing to fight for the people.”
Suozzi does appear to be faring better than Democrats nationally on immigration.
The latest national NBC News poll found voters, by a more than 30-point margin, say Trump would handle immigration and the border better than Biden. The Newsday/Siena College poll also found Trump with a five-point lead over Biden in the 3rd District.
Republicans believe the immigration issue, which has been a political boon to them nationally as the asylum system is overwhelmed, has given them an advantage in the race. They're looking to build on recent GOP successes on Long Island.
“We’re going to do great because all the issues [are] on our side,” Pilip, an Ethiopian immigrant, said in a brief phone interview Thursday evening.
“When we talk about border security, [Suozzi] absolutely caused the problem,” she added, without citing specific votes but arguing that his alignment with Biden makes him culpable. “And people want us to secure the border. This is [the] number one concern.”
Pilip had called the border deal a “nonstarter” and said she believed it funded so-called sanctuary cities, did not adequately fund a wall on the southern border and was tied to funding for Israel and Ukraine. Pilip, who lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces before coming to the U.S., wants aid to Israel and Ukraine addressed separately and supports aid for Israel without any conditions.
The National Border Patrol Council still endorsed Pilip this week, even though the union backed the bipartisan deal.
Suozzi acknowledged it is “late in the game” for the back-and-forth over the Senate border bill to have a tangible impact on the special election, but he stressed that he has put the issue front and center since the start of the race.
And some Democrats believe that’s the best strategy moving forward.
”Democrats learned the hard way that you can’t ignore voter anxieties,” former Rep. Steve Israel, who previously led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and represented an old version of the 3rd District, told NBC News.
“You have to lean into them and offer some common sense solutions and Suozzi’s been doing that,” Israel said.
Elsewhere in New York, former Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones, who is challenging Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., in a competitive district, called the rejection of the border deal “shameful,” saying: “Mike Lawler and his GOP colleagues would rather follow orders from Donald Trump than fix a problem.”
Democrat Will Rollins, who is running against Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., labeled his opponent a career politician who “wants to campaign and fundraise off of the border by making sure it stays broken.”
But it remains to be seen whether the GOP killing the bipartisan deal will be the game-changer that Democrats are looking for as both parties work to capitalize on voters' angst about the border.
In her statement attacking the deal, Pilip called the situation at the southern border an “invasion,” echoing language by Donald Trump which has sparked pushback from immigrant-rights advocates.
Suozzi, however, said on a Monday press call that he wasn’t taking issue with her language.
“People are concerned about people coming across the border in such a chaotic fashion,” Suozzi said. “I don’t take issue with the language or description. It’s a very serious problem of people crossing our border in a chaotic, unvetted fashion.”