Feb 15, 2024

Democrats win New York's 3rd Congressional District.

Tom Suozzi (center) at an event in Westbury campaigning. Image: Terry Ballard / Flickr
Tom Suozzi (center) at an event in Westbury campaigning. Image: Terry Ballard / Flickr

Plus, more reader questions about replacing Trump and Biden.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Democrats win another special election. Plus, yet another reader question about alternatives to Trump and Biden.

Reader feedback.

A reader named Rose responded to my defense of Donald Trump yesterday and said this: "I understand what you are saying about Trump having a record of getting NATO countries to step up, but the rhetoric of being anti-NATO and pro-Putin is what is also consistent and dangerous. I grew up with Soviet missiles pointed at my city from Cuba in the Cold War. I was literally nauseous when Trump stood beside Putin in Helsinki, and there were no witnesses and no translator notes. I think THAT is where the panic is and it’s not so overblown."


Quick hits.

  1. Israeli forces launched a series of strikes in Lebanon that killed several Hezbollah commanders and 10 civilians, including three children. The strikes came in response to Hezbollah firing across the border at Israeli troops, killing at least one Israeli soldier and wounding seven Israeli civilians. (The strikes)
  2. A Georgia judge is going to consider whether to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the election interference case against former President Trump because of a conflict of interest. (The decision)
  3. One person was killed and more than 20 were injured in a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl parade. Three people have been arrested. (The shooting
  4. U.S. officials reportedly have new intelligence on Russia's nuclear capabilities in space. When the intelligence was briefed to Congress yesterday, some members insisted it be declassified and made public. (The report)
  5. Special Counsel Robert Hur, who investigated President Biden's handling of classified documents, is considering testifying before Congress on his findings. (The plan)

Today's topic.

New York's 3rd Congressional district. On Tuesday, former Democratic congressman Tom Suozzi won a closely watched special election in New York's 3rd Congressional District. The election to replace former Rep. George Santos (R) was between Suozzi and Mazi Pilip, a registered Democrat and political newcomer who served as a Republican in Nassau County's Legislature and made the southern border and immigration a centerpiece of her campaign. The campaigns and outside political groups spent more than $20 million vying for a win

Suozzi will now serve out the remainder of Santos's term, then run for re-election again this November. Suozzi’s election narrows an already thin majority for Republicans in the House from 219-212 to 219-213. Thanks to three Republican vacancies in Congress, they can now afford to lose just two party votes on any bill that comes through the lower chamber.

On top of the outcome’s impact on the make-up of the House, the district is considered a bellwether for where the major political parties are heading into the 2024 election season. NY-3, which stretches east from Queens to central Long Island, is racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and politically diverse. President Biden won it by 8 points in 2020, but Santos flipped the district back to Republicans in 2022. Last week, a Siena College poll of the district showed Suozzi ahead of Pilip by four points but Trump leading Biden by five points there. 

Throughout the campaign, both candidates focused on immigration and Israel. Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Jew, grew up in Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Force. She regularly insisted to audiences that she would be a staunch supporter of Israel and emphasized the need to crack down on illegal immigration and support legal immigrants like herself.

Suozzi, meanwhile, emphasized his centrist politics and moderate voting history in Congress, often bucking the Democratic party on immigration and insisting on a border crackdown. Simultaneously, he told voters that it'd be more important to have another staunch Israel supporter among Democrats than among Republicans. He also questioned Biden's 2024 candidacy, even telling local reporters he thought Biden is too old and wasn't sure he'd ultimately be the nominee.

Suozzi also hammered Pilip on abortion, with advertisements that framed her as an anti-abortion extremist. Pilip has opposed a “national abortion ban,” but campaign material from Democrats associated her with a proposal to support “a ban on abortions with no exceptions for rape and incest.” Pilip, meanwhile, was cagey about her support for Trump, evading questions about whether she voted for him in 2020. 

With polls showing the race in a dead heat heading into the election, a last-minute winter storm added another wrinkle to the already complex race. Democrats, who had emphasized early voting, were confident they won the early electorate. In the end, turnout was low and the race wasn't very close, with Suozzi winning by nearly 8 percentage points and over 13,000 votes

Today, we're going to take a look at some commentary about what this race means from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is heartened by Suozzi’s victory, but acknowledges he’ll face another tough race for the seat in November.
  • Some say President Biden should emulate Suozzi’s campaign strategy on crime and immigration. 
  • Others contend the race was still too close for comfort given Suozzi’s funding advantage. 

In The New York Times, Gail Collins said “Tom Suozzi makes the Democrats look good for a New York minute.” 

“Suozzi hardly super-embraced President Biden… But he was certainly less standoffish about his party’s leader than Pilip,” Collins wrote. “This was, truly, a big Biden win. Congressional races are mainly about the party and its leaders. The candidates are sometimes very, very colorful. Or very, very scary. But the only thing that really matters is which side has the most votes. Thanks to the folks in New York’s Third Congressional District, the Republican edge in the House is now even itsy-bitsier — a mere three irritable members are enough to ruin any plan.”

“Let’s give the man credit. And a little time to enjoy his victory, since the Third District is going to look very different in November, when Suozzi will run for re-election,” Collins added. “The only thing you need to dwell on right now, people, is that the Democrats won another seat in the House. When Suozzi is sworn in, the Republicans will have a squeaky majority of 219 to 213. Making life even more miserable for House Speaker Mike ‘Boring Isn’t Necessarily Bad’ Johnson.”

In The Hill, Steve Israel, who represented NY-3 from 2013-2017, suggested “Democrats’ NY-3 special election win shows Biden’s path to victory.”

“How did Democrats turn the red tide in NY-3, and how can Biden do the same, as his polls show alarming cracks in the Democratic coalition heading into 2024?,” Israel asked. “The answer is three-pronged. First, Suozzi succeeded in meeting voters where they were — validating their fears on crime and immigration. Second, he rebutted Pilip’s attacks by advancing commonsense bipartisan solutions. Third, he called out Republican extremism and delineated the clear risks it poses to the public. If President Biden can do these three things, he can reassemble the coalition that propelled him to office in 2020.”

“Party leaders must talk about the fact that they’re serious about solving the problems Americans are most concerned about, from inflation to the border. It’s Republicans who are interested in playing politics, whether by rooting openly for a recession or scuttling a bipartisan deal that would have passed the strongest border security measures in decades. And they must make the case that Republican extremism — from abortion to NATO — is a clear and present danger to the American people.”

In Slate, Alexander Sammon said “Democrats have themselves a victory in New York. But they also have a problem.”

“This race should have been a slam-dunk. Running to replace Santos, who became one of just six representatives ever to be expelled from Congress—and just the third since the Civil War—made for a dream opportunity for Democrats,” Sammon wrote. “And yet, up until election day, polling showed a race so tight it was within the margin of error. This, despite massive name recognition advantage for the Democratic candidate, Suozzi, who has already represented this district in Congress and who had a 2-to-1 spending advantage to boot. Good thing for Democrats that a rare election day snowstorm broke in their favor!”

“Waiting for the national party to airdrop a spending advantage of millions of dollars is not a sustainable way to win elections. The difficulty of this win and the price tag show the cost of the New York State Democratic Party’s refusal to reconcile with the failures of the party apparatus after the 2022 midterms. This district will also have to go back to the polls for this same race in November. How many millions will that cost?”


What the right is saying.

  • The right is disappointed by the result and pins the bulk of the blame on House Republicans.
  • Some push back on the narrative that Suozzi’s win signals anything about Biden’s prospects. 
  • Others worry that Democrats’ superior voter turnout infrastructure will continue to win them elections. 

The New York Sun editorial board wrote “Democrats might not have much to celebrate…  but the Republicans have even less.” 

“Speaker Johnson is eager to put the gloss on the GOP’s defeat in the election to replace George Santos as ‘in no way a bellwether’ for November’s election. Wishful thinking, we say. Better that Mr. Johnson & Co. take the victory of a fairly moderate Democrat… as an alarm bell. The House GOP, which in 2023 acceded to power with high hopes for substantive reform, has degenerated into dysfunction, and voters are noticing,” the board said. Suozzi managed “to flip the script on Republicans on immigration, capitalizing on the GOP’s bait-and-switch on a border deal.”

“House Republicans, for their part, seem intent instead on pursuing the president and his family in Javert-like investigations that show every sign of traversing the constitutional ban on bills of attainder,” the board wrote. “Let the outcome in the Third District be a teachable moment for conservatives who look to House Republicans for leadership. There is still time to right the ship, but if Mr. Johnson and his caucus persist on their present course, they should brace for a return in 2025 to minority status, a setback that would be largely self-imposed.”

In Hot Air, Ed Morrissey wondered “did NY's Special Election unlock 2024 for Democrats?”

“The race in the D+2 district wasn't terribly close, but it wasn't a blowout either. Suozzi defeated Mazi Pilip 53.9% to 46.1%, at least as of the count early this morning. Assuming that gap doesn't expand, it's not even Suozzi's most impressive performance in NY-03,” Morrissey said. “Still, it's good enough to win, and is evidence that NY-03 returned to form. It also provides evidence that Santos lucked out in 2022. Suozzi's retirement and Lee Zeldin's surprisingly strong challenge against Kathy Hochul in the gubernatorial race made the difference in that cycle.”

“Having an incumbent-ish and prominent Democrat come in and beat an unknown Republican in a D+2 district — a Republican candidate still registered as a Democrat, by the way — by seven points isn't exactly a sign of strength or renewal. It looks more like chickens coming home to roost, at worst. On the plus side, this might convince Democrats to actually run on the Biden record regarding immigration and the border crisis. If that's the lesson they take from last night's special election, well ... pass the popcorn.”

In The Federalist, Shawn Fleetwood asked “how many elections must high-polling Republicans lose to learn ballots matter more than votes?”

Suozzi and other Democrats’ recent victories “raise the question: If Biden is deeply unpopular among the American electorate, how do Republicans keep losing what should be winnable elections?,” Fleetwood wrote. “While a lack of any concrete vision for the future of the country may be partly to blame, another theory explaining Republicans’ election failures can be found in the changes to election procedures enacted in 2020… Democrats realized they don’t have to focus on Election Day turnout to win elections — they only need to bank enough mail-in ballots during early voting to bring home the bacon.”

“In the years since 2020, the Democrat election machine has methodically orchestrated a nationwide effort designed to capitalize on this strategy and exploit existing mail-in voting laws,” Fleetwood said. “The reality is that Republicans will continue to lose elections unless they change the laws where they hold power or figure out a way to compete with Democrats’ election machine. Until then, using polls and public opinion surveys to predict election outcomes will remain meaningless.”


My take.

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  • Democrats have been crushing Republicans since 2020.
  • The results tell the story — the 2022 midterms, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Ohio special election, the Virginia House and Pennsylvania House and on and on.
  • My only questions are if Republicans will ever confront this reality, and if Democrats will ever take a win.

Suozzi’s win is a telling sign, and it’s part of a much larger trend. 

If Republicans want to tell themselves a story to calm the nerves, this is the best I can come up with: Suozzi had name recognition and better funding. He won, roughly, by Joe Biden's margin over Donald Trump in this district in 2020. George Santos was a historically embarrassing representative and dragged the party’s local reputation down with him. Democrats voted disproportionately early and then there was a snowstorm. Pilip, the Republican, is pretty new to a race like this and did not run a well organized campaign to get her in front of voters to articulate a clear, solution-oriented vision.

Again, if Republicans want to ignore this result, that is what they can tell themselves.

But that ignores a few major things. First, the expectations. We are all going to memory-hole it now, but a few days before this race both conservative and liberal pundits were preparing for a Republican win. The Hill ran a headline about Democrats moving to "avoid an embarrassing defeat" in the district. CNN said Democrats were "scrambling to stave off defeat." The New York Times published a piece about a "GOP revival" in NY-3. The Federalist interviewed Pilip and published an entire story about how the race was going to be about the border crisis. National Review called the district an immigration bellwether and centered the story on Democrats’ under-performance in New York in 2022, which was basically their only under-performance anywhere in the last four years.

Here's a dose of reality: Since Roe v. Wade fell, and with Trump as the face of the party, Republicans have underperformed in almost every meaningful election for almost four years. This is not an exaggeration.

The party in the White House loses 28 House seats and four Senate seats in midterm elections, on average. In 2022, Democrats shocked everyone by picking up a Senate seat and keeping Republicans' House majority so narrow that the GOP has since spent most of their time fighting amongst themselves and failing to pass legislation supported by majorities of their own party.

Last April, Democrats handily won a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin that was considered a toss-up. Then in August, Democrats won an Ohio special election to reject a ballot measure that would have made it more difficult to enshrine abortion rights into law. Then, in November, Democrats effectively swept every competitive race. They flipped Virginia's House delegation blue, passed a constitutional amendment in Ohio to ensure access to abortion, re-elected a Democratic governor in Kentucky (and improved his margins), sat a liberal justice on the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court, and won a congressional special election in Rhode Island. And again, in another special election last month, Democrats flipped a Florida House Seat.

Democrats have also won a number of less-followed but signal-laden seats across the country: They flipped countless school board seats in swing states, completed a "seismic shift" flip of a mayoral seat in Colorado Springs (also in Colorado, Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has become a household Republican name, had to flee her district and run somewhere else because it looked like she was going to lose). They flipped a mayoral seat in Jacksonville, and picked up seats in New Jersey's state legislature. Not many people are talking about it, but the same day they won NY-3 they also expanded their single seat majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to two, by winning a Bucks County seat (where I grew up), a traditional bellwether county in a bellwether state that is now trending left. On top of all this, Democrats are out fundraising Republicans so badly that the RNC is forcing out its chair

All of this is happening at a time when Biden's approval numbers are terrible, economic sentiment is mediocre, Biden's mental fitness is becoming a massive problem, the border is in crisis, and the world feels unsteady as wars rage on in Ukraine and Gaza. And yet, Democrats are simply cleaning Republicans' clocks. Sean Fleetwood’s piece (under “What the right is saying”) is one of the few that seems attached to this reality. 

The results are telling this story, not me, and conservatives need to wake up. All the polls showing Biden's low approval, all the media narratives about the border or Israel, and all the excuses about poor candidates or extraneous issues (like a winter storm) don’t change the fact that Republicans just keep losing these elections. And while most on the right continue to refuse to acknowledge their losing streak, many in the media, including most people on the left, can’t stop gnashing their teeth over how weak the Democrats are.

Reading the coverage of this election made me feel like I was losing my mind.

One of the things I regularly tell people who question the results of the 2020 election — people who can't believe that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million votes — is to just look around. Look at what has happened since then. That result is consistent with everything we have seen in bellwether counties like this one for the last four years. Nobody is talking about election fraud in NY-3 or in Bucks County or in the 2022 midterms or the 2021 and 2023 special elections because there very obviously wasn't any (at least not any significant election fraud, as most elections have some individual instances of voter fraud). Yet Republicans lost all those races by similar margins, and on the backs of similar voters, as they lost in 2020. They are losing independents, they are losing moderate Republicans, and they are losing suburban women.

Republicans have no response to Democrats on abortion. Suozzi just drew a map for how Democrats can win in tough swing districts where a Republican opponent is making the border crisis the primary issue: Move to the center on immigration, criticize Republicans for not supporting the bipartisan Senate-negotiated border bill, then pivot to abortion. Game, set, match.

This race wasn't close. Suozzi had a four-point lead in the final polls, then doubled it at the ballot box. When this happens in Republicans’ favor, everyone in the media freaks out about whether polls are under-representing Trump and Republican voters; yet very few people are asking whether Democratic enthusiasm is being undercounted. But they should be, because Democrats keep outperforming the polls (and the narratives).

There is a tough reality the GOP has to deal with before 2024 if it wants to retake the Senate, defend the House, and re-elect Trump: They are losing competitive elections, they are not changing their strategy, and the face of their party is very unpopular. They do not have a palatable message on abortion (let alone a winning one), they are no longer negotiating on a solution to the border, and they are following Trump's lead on every national issue despite the fact that his name hurts them in general elections and competitive races.

To repeat, this is all happening at a time when a historically unpopular Democrat whose mental fitness is being questioned sits in the White House, while economic sentiment is poor (or stubbornly mediocre at best), while the border is in crisis, and while two major wars are being live streamed across the globe. This is all happening before any of the big Trump trials. This is all happening without some redrawn congressional maps in states where Democrats have gotten favorable rulings and are gearing up to gerrymander. If any of those issues turn in Democrats' favor between now and November, the hole Republicans are in will just get deeper.

The only question now is this: Is the GOP ready to try something new? If not, we can expect more of the same.

Disagree? That's okay. My opinion is just one of many. Write in and let us know why, and we'll consider publishing your feedback.


Your questions, answered.

Q: A lot can happen between now and November. Biden's health is frail and can change overnight. Trump's entangled legal mess could drag through the summer with verdicts only weeks before November 3rd. Plus, Trump really is more emboldened than ever with his "off the cuff" comments. He could quite possibly derail himself at any moment. So play along with me… if I'm right, who will the RNC and DNC decide to back?

— Tim from St. Augustine, Florida

Tangle: I’m going to lump this question in with one from “Steve from Michigan,” who wanted more from our answer earlier this week to the question of what would happen if either candidate were to die after the primaries but before the election. We answered almost that exact question in December, with the short answer being, “The party isn’t required to choose the candidate’s VP, but they’d open up the convention nomination process and the candidate’s VP will be the frontrunner and expected nominee.”

I’ll also add the same caveat: I wouldn’t bank on this happening. It’s not very likely that either candidate withdraws from the race or dies before inauguration day — just based purely on numbers alone, it’s way more likely that the next president dies while in office. There are 264 days between now and election day, but a four-year term is 1,460 days long.

But sure, I’ll play along. For the DNC, I believe they’d simply advance their VP pick as the party’s nominee, which means Kamala Harris. Whether or not you approve of Harris — and it’s likely that you don’t, since her approval rating is at 37.5%, below both Biden’s approval rating and Trump’s favorability rating — there have been only reaffirming signals from the Biden camp that they’re going to run Harris with him in November.

As for the RNC, it’s still an open question who Trump’s running mate is going to be. When we fielded that question, I predicted Tim Scott as my likely choice; right now, that prediction is looking pretty good. However, Scott is a much weaker candidate with no Trump, so I could see a world where the party looked to someone that is more closely aligned with Trump’s policy positions. Despite his flop in the primary, my money would be on DeSantis, though I think they really would have a hard time picking.

But I’ll say again: this is all hypothetical, and I don’t think we’ll see anything other than Biden-Trump in November.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

Yesterday, the House GOP quietly postponed a vote on the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, the spy powers bill that allows intelligence services to monitor foreigners. In two months, the controversial program — which sometimes results in warrantless monitoring of Americans — will expire. Republicans can't reach an agreement on floor amendments, though, so House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has to take the bill back to the negotiating table. The latest punt is creating increased frustration with Johnson. One congressional aide told Politico that “the one universal consensus — left, right, hawk, dove, reformer — is that Johnson has no idea what he is doing.” Politico has the story.


Numbers.

  • $13.8 million. The amount spent by Democrats on advertising for the NY-3 special election. 
  • $8.1 million. The amount spent by Republicans on advertising for the special election. 
  • 80,000. The approximate number of people who voted early in-person in the special election. 
  • 13,000. The approximate number of mail-in ballots cast in the special election. 
  • 39%. The approximate percentage of active registered voters who are Democrats in NY-3. 
  • 28%. The approximate percentage of active registered voters who are Republicans in NY-3. 
  • $130,679. The median household income in NY-3 in 2022, the highest of any congressional district in New York. 

The extras.

New to extras: We’re making a change to the way we present our reader polls. Below, you’ll see a screenshot of yesterday’s poll instead of a text description. Below that will be the link to today’s poll.

What do you think of the results of the special election in the NY-3 district? Let us know!


Have a nice day.

In a case of paying it forward, Derek Brown shared a story of generosity with his classroom of elementary school students in Phoenix, Arizona. The story was about an anonymous wealthy “Secret Santa” who gave out $30,000 in $100 bills to strangers living on tribal lands in southeastern Arizona. The story resonated so deeply with Brown’s students that they worked with local businesses to raise $8,000 of their own, and then similarly gave it away to strangers — people like Deidre Taylor, who had just been diagnosed with cancer and was down to her last $20. "Thank you so very much, you guys are amazing," Taylor told them. CBS News has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.