Democrat Tom Suozzi won back New York’s third congressional district seat in yesterday’s special election to replace George Santos, defeating Republican Mazi Pilip by a greater-than-expected margin of around eight points.

With 93 percent of votes in, Suozzi leads Pilip with 53.9 percent of votes to 46.1 percent. Pre-election day polls suggested the race was much closer, around the margin of error, but with Suozzi maintaining a larger lead with very likely voters. And in the end, turnout proved to be a decisive factor in the NY-3 race.

Yet there was much more to the Suozzi win. And while this race has been seen as a bellwether for November, the Democrats may not like its implications for the fall, even as they bask in victory this winter.

Suozzi Didn’t Run as a Democrat

Suozzi distanced himself from President Joe Biden, who — like Donald Trump — is viewed unfavorably by a majority of voters in the district. (Their unfavorable ratings are 57 percent and 55 percent respectively).

It’s not just Biden’s brand that is toxic. The former Nassau County executive also distanced himself from the Democratic Party, effectively running as an independent. Suozzi’s campaign material often avoided mention of his party affiliation, instead emphasizing his work across the aisle with Republicans, like the former Rep. Peter King.

Suozzi’s bipartisan appeal worked. In a Newsday-Siena College poll, 88 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents, and even 24 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that described Suozzi as a “moderate Democrat” and “the type of common-sense representative we need.”

Voters wanted results. And Suozzi smartly touted his membership in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. If Tuesday’s results are any indicator, they reflect a purple wave, not a blue one.

Suozzi Pivoted Right

Suozzi tilted to the right on issues like immigration while maintaining a clear liberal stance on issues like abortion. He countered Pilip’s claims that he booted U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from Nassau County in the early 2000s by calling for expanding the border wall and the temporary closing the southern border.

A lifelong Democrat and a household name in Long Island, Suozzi’s rightward shift preceded this special election. In his failed 2022 gubernatorial bid, Suozzi ran to the right of incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul on issues like crime. That pivot didn’t work out for him in the primary — but it was key for winning this congressional special election.

The migrant crisis was a major issue Pilip ran on, but she failed to gain a significant advantage on it, despite her best efforts. Ahead of the election, Pilip only had a 9-point lead over Suozzi on the question of which candidate would be better at handling the migrant crisis. It’s an issue she needed to have a double-digit advantage on.

Neutralized Pilip on Israel

Prior to the election, Pilip was a relatively unknown county legislator with an exceptionally thin record. The Republican Party chose Pilip as its candidate because it bet that she — an Ethiopian-Israeli American Orthodox Jew who once served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — would win a sizeable chunk of the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote in the wake of the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

The NY-3 congressional district has a sizeable Jewish population, which makes up somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population.

But the Republicans made a bad bet. Notably, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) made no endorsement of the race. The reason? There’s really no daylight between Pilip and Suozzi on the question of Israel.

Local Republicans were banking on Pilip mobilizing right-leaning Orthodox and Iranian Jewish supporters in her hometown of Great Neck. But in the end, their numbers weren’t sufficient to impact the outcome of this congressional race. Pilip failed to gain decisive traction with Jews who are more liberal politically and religiously. Her efforts to paint Suozzi as a member of The Squad — with racialized allusions to Ilhan Omar — failed.

For example, the Suozzi campaign was able to retain the support of older, Jewish retirees in Queens who are heavily Democratic and turn out to vote at high rates.

It helped that Suozzi visited Israel and the Holy Land just before Christmas. In one pre-election survey, the two candidates were virtually tied on the question of U.S. policy toward Israel. Suozzi neutralized another advantage Pilip was said to have.

Down the road, Democrats may have a tougher balancing act to play on U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. According to an Emerson poll, 42 percent of Souzzi voters support aid to Israel, while 37 percent oppose it.

After redistricting later this year, NY-3 may become more blue — and less supportive of unconditional aid to Israel, reflecting national trends on the left.

Data and Turnout: Targeting Asians and Base

The Pilip campaign’s greatest weakness was its candidate. Pilip looked good on paper for the Fox News crowd. Pilip, in reality, was a big disappointment.

She remained confined not just to her hometown, but also her home, for much of the campaign. Part of this is due to her adherence to the Jewish Sabbath. Yet in the end, those constraints should have forced to her work doubly hard the rest of the week. Instead, she remained disinterested in reaching out to a broad base of voters in this rapidly diversifying district.

National media outlets focused on the district’s Jewish voters — no doubt an important constituency, but nowhere near the “majority” a CNN reporter claimed they were.

Local and national news outlets largely ignored Asian voters, who — at least in terms of registration — outnumber Jews, making up roughly 25 percent of the population. So too did Pilip. And it helped cost her the election.

On Christmas Day, it would have made sense for Pilip to visit a church affiliated with the district’s growing Korean Christian community. Instead, she stopped by a Jewish community center that she frequented during the campaign.

Pilip spent much of the campaign fundraising for the IDF in its war in Gaza. The Pilip campaign remained insular — wedded to a campaign strategy that worked for her county legislative campaign in Great Neck and not the district as a whole.

In contrast, Suozzi made a relentless push to get out the Asian vote. In one weekend, he held nearly a dozen separate meetings with different Asian American community groups, including Chinese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, and Tibetan organizations.

By the end of the campaign, Suozzi had a 35 percent advantage over Pilip with Asian voters. His team and aligned PACs flooded Asian voters with handwritten postcards, phone calls, and text messages. Asian voters who had not yet taken part in early voting were sent repeated text messages to turn out at the voting booth.

Team Suozzi neutralized its opponent’s strengths and got out its base. And in the end, candidate Suozzi put in the work, campaigning without rest.

Voters won’t get out to vote for candidates who don’t get out of their homes. And while Pilip’s religious obligations were a constraint in this short race, even outside the sabbath, she seemed to prefer rest. The third congressional district’s voters ultimately rejected an untested, part-time candidate.

Tuesday’s victory is a big win for Democrats. But Suozzi won by largely repudiating Biden. So while the Democrats gain a seat in the House, narrowing the already-thin Republican majority, Suozzi’s win may suggest that the president’s greatest obstacle to winning in November is himself.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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