If Democrats want to take back the House later this year, they’re going to have to start winning in places like New York’s 3rd District.
The Long Island-based seat is hosting a hotly contested special election on Tuesday, which is shaping up to be an early messaging and turnout test not just for Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Pilip but for both parties nationally ahead of November.
“There’s no question that whichever party wins this seat is going to get a boost going into the general election cycle,” said New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, who also chairs the Nassau County party in the 3rd District, which Republican George Santos represented before he was expelled from Congress in December.
While strategists warn not to extrapolate too much from special elections with unpredictable turnout, the race sets the table for a hard-fought battle for the House over the rest of the year, with Democrats needing a net gain of five districts to flip the House. Like other House battlegrounds, the New York district is a Republican-held seat that Joe Biden carried in 2020 — by 8 points, per calculations from Daily Kos Elections.
And this district is in a state with multiple competitive House races, though it is not a presidential battleground.
Nearly two-thirds of the 23 House races that the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates as 2024 toss-ups are in states that are not considered presidential battlegrounds, including a number of competitive races in New York and California.
While that dynamic could make it tougher for these races to capture attention from donors and activists in a presidential election year, candidates in these House races could also have more room to run their own races and put their personal policy proposals front and center, in a year when Biden and former President Donald Trump are barreling into the general election with low favorability ratings.
To start, Tuesday’s race on Long Island is a test of whether Democrats can successfully put some distance between themselves and Biden as he grapples with some of the lowest levels of support in his presidency.
A Newsday/Siena College poll released Thursday found a majority of likely voters in the 3rd District view both Biden and Trump unfavorably. And while Trump is leading Biden there by 5 points in the poll, the same survey shows Suozzi, a former congressman, leading Pilip by 4 points.
Still, Republicans are optimistic that they can remain competitive in these districts due to Biden’s low approval ratings — and as voters voice concerns about the economy and the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The biggest issue that’s emerged since the November 2022 election has been the impact of this crisis at our southern border that has made its way to New York City and nearby areas,” said former GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin, who represented a neighboring district and carried Nassau County in his unsuccessful gubernatorial run last year.
Zeldin also said that this district has shifted toward Republicans in part because its sizable Jewish population, which he said has moved to the right since the Obama administration’s 2015 deal with Iran aimed at preventing the nation from getting nuclear weapons. Support for Israel is front and center in this race amid the ongoing war with Hamas following the Oct. 7 attack.
“Post-Oct. 7, the activism and urgency and interest that voters have continues to increase,” Zeldin said.
Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, has stressed her Jewish faith and her time serving in the Israel Defense Forces as a gunsmith with the paratrooper unit, while Suozzi has argued that he is willing to stand up to those in his party who criticize Israel.
Top issue previews
The special election is providing an early opportunity to test party messaging and countermessaging on top issues like immigration and abortion, which are sure to play major roles in races around the U.S. this fall.
Although support for Israel has been a key issue, the influx of migrants has dominated TV ads in the race. Republicans have slammed Suozzi on the issue, and Suozzi has said he would work with both parties to address the crisis.
Republicans believe the issue has given them an edge in the 3rd District on Tuesday and in other House races come November.
“We’re going to do great because all the issues [are] on our side,” Pilip, an Ethiopian immigrant first elected to her county role in 2021, said in a brief phone interview Thursday evening. She called border security the “number-one concern” for voters.
Republicans have been making gains in New York since 2020, particularly on Long Island, flipping the 3rd District and winning recent local elections.
“The Democratic brand has been decimated over the past three years,” Suozzi told reporters during a Wednesday Zoom briefing, noting Republican attacks on issues like crime and bail reform.
Asked in a Thursday phone interview why GOP messages have been resonating, Suozzi told NBC News: “There’s been this sense from many people — both the public, the press, the politicians — is that issues like crime and immigration, patriotism, et cetera, are all Republican issues. They’re not Republican issues. They’re American issues that everyone needs to be talking about.”
“We have to address those issues that people are concerned about,” he later added.
Border security is one of them, and Suozzi noted he has been focused on it since the start of the protracted race.
Suozzi has also tried to seize on Pilip’s opposition to a doomed bipartisan Senate deal to toughen asylum laws and bolster border security. But the border deal fallout may be playing out too late to substantially affect the race.
Likely voters surveyed in the Newsday/Siena College poll, by a 9-point margin, say Pilip would better address the migrant crisis. Suozzi’s largest advantage over Pilip is on the issue of abortion, with voters, by a 22-point margin, saying he would better address the issue.
While Suozzi has brought up abortion on the campaign trail and in a heated debate exchange Thursday night, he’s barely mentioned it in his TV ads. He declined to explain why, noting outside groups were focused on the issue.
On abortion access, Suozzi did say, “I don’t support any limits.”
Democratic groups have outspent Republicans on the airwaves, with Suozzi and his allies dropping $13.8 million on ads to Republicans’ $7.7 million, per the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.
One recent ad from the Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC features footage of Pilip describing herself as “pro-life,” and accuses her of supporting a national abortion ban, citing her position on the Conservative Party ballot line.
Pilip said in the debate that she would not support a federal ban, but declined to say if she would vote to protect the right to an abortion at the federal level. She also did not directly answer that question in a phone interview.
“I can tell you in New York state, in my district, that right is protected,” Pilip told NBC News.
Pilip’s argument that abortion is protected in New York reflects some GOP thinking that abortion won’t be as salient an issue in House races in Democratic-leaning states. But Democrats still intend to run on it. One Democratic strategist involved in House races noted that polling shows anti-abortion stances are “toxic” across various battleground districts.
Both parties are also testing their turnout operations on Tuesday, as they prep efforts to bolster House candidates in states that won’t benefit from the resources flowing into presidential battlegrounds.
Both main House super PACs — the Congressional Leadership Fund on the Republican side and the House Majority PAC on the Democratic side — have been engaged in the special election, launching ads and targeting voters.
Battleground New York, a Democratic group, is also engaged in the special election as it looks to bolster grassroots organizing in the state’s House races later this year.
“The special election is certainly the first opportunity to put that to test,” said Battleground New York co-director Gabby Seay. The group is spending more than $700,000 on a field program targeting 40,000 voters.
Republicans are also testing their turnout operations, with the Nassau County GOP activating its network of volunteers across 1,100 election districts, per county GOP Chairman Joe Cairo.
New York GOP spokesman David Laska said he is “100%” confident the national party will be focused on House races in the state given they are “the majority-making delegation.”
Laska did note New Yorkers are in “wait and see mode” as they await a new congressional map. The state’s redistricting commission has until Feb. 28 to draw a new map, and Laska said the state GOP will challenge the new map if it is a partisan gerrymander.
Even amid that uncertainty, Laska and other House strategists still expect New York to remain a key state in the fight for the House.
“We’ll see what happens on Feb. 13,” Zeldin said. “But you know, no matter what, everyone on both sides of the aisle will be waking up on Feb. 14 understanding that everything remains just as much an extremely competitive House environment for the fall.”