What to know about the special election to replace George Santos

What to know about the special election to replace George Santos

A high-stakes special election in disgraced ex-Congressman George Santos’ former district is being held on Tuesday 13 February, in a race that will likely have major implications for national politics.

The special election in New York’s 3rd Congressional district pits Republican newcomer Mazi Pilip up against Tom Suozzi, a former three-term congressman, who vacated the seat in 2021 to launch an unsuccessful run for governor.

Ms Pilip is an Ethiopian-born, former Israeli Defense Force paratrooper whose compelling backstory has Republicans touting her as a future star of the party.

The by-election has taken on added significance due to Republicans’ slim majority in the House, and is shaping up as a bellwether for how well both parties are faring ahead of the 2024 general election.

The campaign has been dominated by national issues such as border security, abortion, the economy and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Both parties will be watching the results closely for any signs that the candidates’ messaging on contentious issues resonates with voters.

Mazi Pilip, centre, arrives to vote early at a polling station in Massapequa, New York, on Friday with former GOP congressman Peter King and Oyster Bay town supervisor Joseph Saladino (AP)
Mazi Pilip, centre, arrives to vote early at a polling station in Massapequa, New York, on Friday with former GOP congressman Peter King and Oyster Bay town supervisor Joseph Saladino (AP)

Recent polling has shown Mr Suozzi with a four point lead in a district that traditionally leans slightly Republican, but the race is essentially a toss-up.

Early voting is underway, and the results will be announced on Tuesday night.

Here’s what to know about the election.

The key issues

New York City’s migrant crisis has clearly been top of voters’ minds, and both candidates have sought to stake out hardline approaches to border security.

At the final candidate debate on Thursday hosted by News 12, emotions ran high as Ms Pilip accused her rival of “opening the border”, raised his past criticism of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and noted his support for sanctuary cities.

Mr Suozzi responded that his opposition to ICE officers in 2022 was due to the agency not cooperating with local police, and said he was one of only 18 Democrats who backed continuing funding for the agency when he was in Congress.

He also pointed out Ms Pilip’s opposition to a bipartisan Senate bill that would have tightened border security and provided aid to Israel and Ukraine. Republican support for the bill vanished after Donald Trump came out in opposition to it.

Tom Suozzi is an experienced political campaigner (AP)
Tom Suozzi is an experienced political campaigner (AP)

The Democrat has also sought to distance himself from the Biden administration over its handling of the border.

“I support strong border security... and anything else you hear is garbage,” he says in a recent campaign advert.

He also pointedly noted that he didn’t think it would be helpful for President Joe Biden to campaign in the district with him in a recent CNN interview.

An estimated 161,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York since April 2022, and the cost of housing them has blown a multi-billion dollar hole in the city’s finances.

At Thursday’s News 12 debate, the pair also clashed over the issue of abortion rights.

Ms Pilip, who has seven children, reiterated her position that she would not support a national aboriton ban, before calling on Mr Suozzi to apologise for lying about her stance.

Rather than apologise, Mr Suozzi repeatedly questioned whether she was pro-choice and pressed her to state whether she would vote to codify abortion protections.

Contrasting candidates

Ms Pilip left Ethiopia at the age of 12, when she was among the 14,500 Jewish people airlifted out of the country during Operation Solomon.

After serving in a gunsmith unit in the IDF, she earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of Haifa and a master’s in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University.

Ms Pilip married a Ukrainian-American doctor before moving to the US. She was first elected to the Nassau County legislature in 2021 and won re-election late last year.

Though running as a Republican, Ms Pilip remains a registered Democrat. Her campaign team has said she opted to wait until after the election to formally change her party affiliation to avoid legal complications that could potentially knock her off the ballot.

While the candidates have pushed their credentials as pragmatic moderates, their parties have invested huge amounts of money in trying to portray each other as on the fringes.

Democrats have spent $8m on political adverts painting Ms Pilip as a Maga extremist.

Mr Suozzi, a polished public speaker and debater, has targeted his opponent’s lack of experience, and questioned her qualifications and ability to be an effective operator in Washington.

He is well known to voters in the district, having held elected office in the district for much of the past three decades. In 1993, he was elected mayor of Glen Cove, on Long Island’s North Shore.

Republicans for their part have invested more than $3m trying to paint Mr Suozzi as on the extreme left.

During Thursday’s debate, he poked fun at GOP efforts to cast him as aligned with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“(For) you to suggest that I’m a member of the Squad is about as believable as you being a member of George Santos’ volleyball team,” he said.

Ms Pilip has won endorsements from the Jewish Press, and the influential local paper, the North Shore Leader.

Mr Suozzi has the backing of the New York Daily News, and Newsday.

A wealthy, multicultural district

New York’s 3rd Congressional district straddles the New York borough of Queens and Nassau County in Long Island and was the nation’s fourth wealthiest by median household income in 2022.

An estimated 11 per cent of the voting population are Jewish. The Israel-Hamas conflict stirred high emotions in the district, and both candidates have pledged unwavering support for the US ally.

George who?

One thing is clear: New York’s 3rd Congressional district is ready to move on from the embarrassment of the scandal-plagued, federally-indicted George Santos.

In December, Mr Santos became only the sixth lawmaker ever to be expelled from the House of Congress after the release of a damning House Ethics Committee report.

Two months earlier, he was charged with a host of fraud and dishonesty offences including embezzling money from his campaign and lying to Congress about his wealth.

A few quips aside, Mr Santos has been largely anonymous in debates and campaign speeches by the two candidates.

The key question is whether voters are ready to elect another unknown quantity in Ms Pilip.

Associated Press contributed to this report