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The race for George Santos’ congressional seat could offer clues to how suburbs will vote this year

A special election in the suburbs of New York to replace disgraced former Rep. George Santos could offer clues about the mindset of suburban voters everywhere as 2024 election contests ramp up across the country.

The Tuesday contest for the House seat held by Santos until his recent expulsion is shaping up to be a bellwether in the fight for control of Congress, as candidates test political messages their parties hope will appeal to suburban voters in the fall. It not only could subtract one more vote from Republicans’ narrow majority in the short run but will be monitored carefully for any signals it sends about what suburban voters elsewhere may be thinking entering the highly volatile 2024 election year.

The Long Island race pits former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who represented the district for three terms before quitting to run for governor, against Republican nominee Mazi Pilip, a county legislator.

The seat, which represents suburbs just east of New York City plus a small part of Queens, became vacant after Santos was expelled from the House late last year after getting charged with multiple counts of fraud and stealing from donors.

While the Santos scandal gives the race a unique backstory, the candidates have campaigned on issues that could be aimed at suburban voters anywhere, with Republicans hammering away on immigration and crime while Democrats cast themselves as the last line of defense on abortion rights.

Tuesday’s special election gives both parties an opportunity to assess strategies for November’s general election, when New York is expected to be a battleground in the fight for control of the House, where Republicans now hold a thin majority.

“It’s a bellwether for the rest of the country, in that candidates and political operatives are looking at the strategies and tactics and the messaging to see how it’ll play out in their swing suburbs,” said Larry Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island. “February 13th is really about November 5th, and swing suburban districts all over the country.”

The district itself could potentially wind up being reshaped before the November election because of a lingering battle over redistricting in New York, making its status as a measure of voter sentiment in a district that hasn’t changed yet especially interesting.

Pilip entered the race with an intriguing personal story.

Born in Ethiopia, she left that country at age 12 as part of Operation Solomon, when Israel airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days as civil war and famine raged in the Horn of Africa. The new arrivals struggled to transition from their developing home country to Israel, with many Ethiopian Israelis alleging racist treatment, police harassment and discriminatory slights.

As an adult, she served in a gunsmith unit in Israel’s military. She moved to the U.S. after marrying a Ukrainian-American doctor in 2005. Pilip was elected to the Nassau County legislature in 2021.

Though she publicly identifies as a Republican, Pilip registered as a Democrat when she got to the U.S. and still hasn’t changed her voter registration. She said she drifted away from the party as it became more liberal. A spokesman said Pilip decided to wait until after the election to formally change her party affiliation to avoid legal complications that could potentially knock her off the ballot.

Despite her background, Pilip has hammered Democrats and President Joe Biden over U.S. immigration policy. She has argued for additional policing of the border to stop illegal immigration as well as the construction of a border wall.

She held one of her first news conferences of the campaign outside a site in Queens, where New York City officials had set up a large shelter to house homeless migrants, many of whom were bused to New York after crossing the southern border.

“This is a big concern for my district,” Pilip said. “A lot of residents very much worry about this. No one asked them if they want to have male migrants living next to their playground. They don’t like that.”

Suozzi, a political moderate, has meanwhile distanced himself from policies that have damaged Democrats in the New York suburbs.

“The Democratic brand has been decimated over the past three years,” Suozzi said. “It started with crime in New York City and the bail reform that took place and that was very effectively weaponized by the Republicans.”

“That crime issue now has been exacerbated by the migrant issue,” he said.

As the election nears, Suozzi has increasingly talked about strengthening border policy, pointing out times when he bucked his own party on the issue when he was in Congress. He said recently that he would support a temporary closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to slow the flow of migrants into the country. Biden has used similar rhetoric on the border.

The former congressman has also stressed his deep experience in governing — three terms in Congress as well as stints as a mayor and a county executive on Long Island — as evidence he could strike bipartisan agreements on difficult issues, such as ongoing congressional negotiations over border control and the Israel-Hamas war.

“This is serious business. This requires some ability and some competence to navigate the politics and the governing and the policy and the domestic and the international,” he said. “She’s unvetted, she’s unprepared and will make things worse.”

Pilip, for her part, has aggressively moved to counter criticism from Suozzi and Democrats that she is anti-abortion, a centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s overall election year strategy.

Pilip said that while she is personally opposed to abortion, she would oppose any attempt by Congress to ban it nationwide. She has also said mifepristone, an abortion medication, should be available nationally.

“Abortion is a personal decision, a personal choice. Every woman should make that decision. Therefore I’m not going to support a national abortion ban and I’m not going to risk a woman’s health care,” Pilip said.

Abortion rights have been a winning issue for Democrats in recent elections. Polling has shown a broad swath of Americans support at least some access to the procedure.

The race is hard to handicap. Suozzi has some of the advantages that usually come with incumbency. He had a comfortable victory in his last race in the district in 2020, defeating Santos, then a relatively unknown Republican. The same year, Biden beat Donald Trump in the district.

But two years later, Santos, falsely portraying himself as a wealthy, Wall Street financial wizard, beat Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the midterm elections. That was part of a wave of Republican victories in Long Island elections in recent years in both congressional and local races. But his spectacular crash-and-burn tenure in Congress could linger in the minds of voters weighing a choice between the parties.

Another question that has loomed over the race has been whether the district will exist in its current form for much longer.

The state’s highest court threw out New York’s congressional map late last year and ordered a new set of lines to be drawn by the end of February. The ruling was a major win for Democrats in the state who have angled for more favorable congressional districts.

It remains unclear exactly what approach Democrats will take on redistricting but the party could try to reshape the district in their favor, no matter who wins, perhaps by including a slightly larger slice of New York City.

Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press