Did New York just give Biden a blueprint for 2024?

Tom Suozzi
Tom Suozzi celebrates his victory in the special election to replace Republican Rep. George Santos, Feb. 13. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
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What happened

On Tuesday, Democrat Tom Suozzi scored an easier-than-expected victory in the New York special election to replace ousted GOP Rep. George Santos, racking up 54% of the vote to Republican Mazi Pilip’s 46%.

The battle for Long Island’s Third District had been closely watched for its national implications. Strategists were curious to see whether New Yorkers would punish the Republican Party for saddling them with Santos, a serial fabulist who was expelled from the House in December and now faces nearly two dozen fraud-related charges — and whether Suozzi, who previously represented the district from 2017 to 2023, was the right candidate to recapture his old seat and further reduce the GOP’s narrow House majority.

The answer to both questions, it turns out, was yes.

But now Democrats, buoyed by the size of Suozzi’s win, are buzzing about an even grander possibility: Could the way that he defeated Pilip — by talking tough on immigration — be a winning road map for President Biden and the rest of the party in 2024?

“You just need to go on offense and say, ‘I’m the one who wants to secure the border. It’s the Republicans who want chaos at the border,’” Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Suozzi’s campaign, told the Associated Press. “[It’s] a very easy message that can be adopted by Democrats across the country.”

Why there’s debate

Republicans have been banking on immigration to bolster their chances in 2024. Since Biden took office in 2021 and reversed some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline restrictions, illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border have surged to a record high of more than 2 million per year, on average. More than 170,000 migrants — some of them bussed from GOP-run states and cities — have arrived in New York City, straining social services.

Both local and national polls have shown that voters are unhappy about the situation — and that they prefer Republicans to handle it.

In response, most Democrats, including Biden, spent 2023 avoiding border politics while privately fretting about how the issue might affect the 2024 election. Bowing to GOP pressure, the president agreed to bipartisan border talks last fall; the hope was that “a deal might take the issue off the table for his re-election campaign,” according to the New York Times.

Yet when Senate negotiators actually struck a $20 billion bipartisan deal earlier this month — a deal that gave the GOP much of what it had asked for, including provisions that would restrict claims for parole, raise the bar for asylum, ease the expulsion of migrants and automatically shutter the border if illegal crossings reach a certain average daily threshold — Trump balked, and following his lead, Republicans on Capitol Hill effectively doomed the legislation.

“This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party,” Trump complained on his Truth Social network. “It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!”

Sensing a political opportunity, Biden pounced. “All indications are this bill won’t even move forward to the Senate floor. Why? ... Because Donald Trump thinks it’s bad for him politically,” Biden said in remarks from the White House. “He’d rather weaponize this issue than actually solve it.”

Suozzi was the first Democrat to test this message. Rather than shrink from the migrant issue, he described it as a crisis of “epic proportions” and made it the centerpiece of his campaign, calling on Biden to temporarily close the border and demanding the deportation of a group of migrant men charged with assaulting police officers in Times Square. And when Pilip joined Trump in rejecting the Senate border deal, Suozzi pulled a Biden, accusing her of playing politics instead of trying to solve the problem.

The fact that Suozzi went on to win by a wide margin despite a barrage of GOP attacks on immigration has given Democrats hope that Biden and others can do the same in November. But skeptics point to a host of complicating factors — Suozzi’s high profile and his decision to distance himself from Biden; Democrats’ huge spending advantage; the GOP’s Santos “penalty”; the weirdness of special elections; the district’s existing Democratic lean; even a snowstorm that might have affected turnout — to caution Biden & Co. against reading too much into Tuesday’s result.

What’s next

It remains to be seen whether the president who has overseen a record increase in illegal border crossings can now shift at least some of responsibility to the former president who is preventing Washington from addressing the problem.

That may be more difficult nationally than it was in New York. When ABC News and Ipsos asked Americans who deserved blame for Congress’s failure to pass legislation, “Biden and congressional Democrats got as much blame as Republicans,” the Washington Post recently reported. Meanwhile, “Trump got significantly less.”

Perspectives

Suozzi’s win should ‘serve as a road map for Democrats.’

“Suozzi messaged aggressively on the issue, running ads that highlighted his support for a secure border and legal pathways to citizenship. He flipped the script on his Republican opponent… and turned what could have been a devastating political liability into an advantage. ... We risk losing the 2024 election if we do not seize this opportunity to go on offense.” — Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, in a memo to his party

Simply emphasizing immigration — rather than avoiding it — was powerful politics.

“[Suozzi] did not treat voters as irrational for caring about social issues or for having moderate views. ... When politicians tell voters to stop caring about an issue, voters often hear it as a sign of disrespect. People rarely vote for a candidate who doesn’t seem to respect them.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times

What worked for a former congressman won’t work for the current president.

“[Biden] must really think voters are stupid, trying to convince them that after three years of his policies that Republicans are somehow at fault. Nobody believes Joe Biden wants to ‘get tough’ on the border. Please. His administration has argued for three years [that] the border is secure. What changed? Oh. It’s election time.” — Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, to the New York Times

Other factors probably played a bigger part in Suozzi’s win.

“The backdrop of Mr. Santos probably helped energize Democrats. ... The quasi-incumbent Mr. Suozzi undoubtedly helped, and so did Democrats’ strong fund-raising advantage. There was even a big snowstorm on Tuesday that may have dampened Republican Election Day turnout (Democrats voted more by mail). Add in the broader tendency for Democrats to excel in low-turnout special elections nowadays, and it’s pretty easy to see why Democrats managed to win this district that President Biden won four years ago.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

Especially because the district itself was the Democrats’ to lose.

“It would be a mistake for Democrats to confuse what happened in NY-3 with a larger national message. Going from Suozzi to Santos and back to Suozzi is like going from a brief, exciting but ultimately traumatic and out-of-character affair back to your boring but stable ex who you belonged with all along. At the end of the day, Democrats in New York took back a seat we never should have given up to begin with.” — Melissa DeRosa, Daily Beast

Still, Tuesday’s loss is another sign that Republicans could blow an otherwise winnable election in 2024.

“If the ‘Democrats have left our borders insecure, and their decisions have left our communities overwhelmed with migrants’ message isn’t going to work here, where is it going to work? ... You can see the signs that 2024 is looking a lot like 2022, an environment where the public is frustrated with Democrats and Republicans should be romping to victory, but they don’t — in large part because the Trump-loyalist leaders of the party look like the characters in the Star Wars bar scene instead of competent, professional, clear-eyed problem solvers.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review