Republicans test border security as campaign strategy in bellwether special election

NEW YORK — House Republicans are banking on border security being key to keeping their majority. The special election in a district straddling Long Island and migrant-overwhelmed New York City provides their first test case.

Outside a sprawling migrant shelter last week, Ethiopian-born Mazi Pilip introduced herself to reporters as a legal immigrant before identifying herself as a GOP congressional candidate. She then linked Democrat Tom Suozzi — her opponent in the race to replace George Santos — to what she described as President Joe Biden’s failed border policies.

Facing cameras in the same spot moments later, Suozzi delivered a rebuttal, arguing Republicans are politicizing the issue instead of solving it.

The competing news conferences outside the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center migrant tent complex in Queens laid bare how central the border fight is in this local race. And they underscored how illegal immigration and national security are affecting voters in a presidential election year as Republicans hammer Biden over the border.

The Long Island race on Feb. 13 should be Democrats’ to lose.

They’re running a familiar candidate, vastly outspending the GOP and are not the party of Santos — the first Republican ever expelled from Congress. Suozzi, a former House member with centrist views, would appear to be a heavyweight against Pilip, a political novice who makes herself scarce on the trail and keeps some views close to the vest.

But between the surge of migrants to New York City — more than 170,000 since April 2022 — and the infrastructure of the hyper-organized Nassau County Republican Committee, Democrats find themselves on the defensive.

“This is our seat to win,” Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Nassau County Republican, said in an interview. “This is going to be the message that is sent across this country and to Minority Leader [Hakeem] Jeffries that perhaps they should be investing their money somewhere else in the general.”

The face-off between Pilip and Suozzi marks the first House race of the year. And it has provided some early insights into how each party is campaigning.

So far, Democrats are showing caution as Republicans are projecting confidence — especially around border politics.

“I will work to stop Joe Biden and Tom Suozzi’s sanctuary city policies and secure our border and invest in our brave ICE agents,” Pilip pledged outside Creedmoor.

Her campaign’s first three TV ads have featured juxtaposed images of Suozzi, Biden and masses of migrants on the move at the Southern border. An ad push by the House GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund also capitalizes on migrant crisis backlash.

There’s good reason for that: An Emerson College/PIX11 poll found 26 percent of voters in the district listed immigration as their top concern. The same poll, the only public survey released thus far, showed Pilip within three points of Suozzi, who represented the district for six years.

Republicans have an easier task.

They must persuade voters concerned enough to head to the polls in a typically low-turnout special election that they have a better handle over the migrant crisis. And in Washington, House Republicans have advanced impeachment articles against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Some reject the notion that they should negotiate with the Democrats on a border deal, saying instead that Biden should enforce laws already on the books.

Democrats, by contrast, are on the defensive.

They must juggle acknowledging the gravity of the situation while calling out the GOP on leveraging it for political gain — and do both without undermining the president.

Tom Suozzi has argued that Republicans are politicizing immigration instead of solving it.

“I agree, it’s a big, big problem,” Suozzi said at a recent news conference, referring to the migrant crisis. “Why would you not do everything in your power to try and get a bipartisan deal done to fix this problem?”

Democrats and allied PACs in ads and mailers have portrayed Pilip as beholden to “MAGA Republicans,” tied her to extremist policies like a proposed nationwide ban on abortion and accused her of hiding from hard questions. (She has called herself “pro-life,” but has said she would not support a federal ban on abortion.) Suozzi’s campaign has run mostly biographical ads about his work across the aisle and touted his support for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The party that wins can claim momentum ahead of November, when six competitive New York House races will help determine which party wields the speakership come 2025. And the special election results will shape messaging nationwide in a presidential contest focused on inflation, the Israel-Hamas war, abortion access and illegal immigration.

“Fear-mongering is an effective tool for campaigning,” Rep. Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat, said in an interview. “But our responsibility as legislators is to provide solutions, and at the very least, to show up and talk to our voters, which is not happening.”

The comment was a dig at Pilip’s limited time in the public eye.

The first news conference of her campaign occurred six weeks after she was nominated.

Three days later, the Nassau GOP hosted a rally with eight House Republicans, including Majority Whip Tom Emmer, but excluded the candidate they were on hand to honor. Organizers had scheduled an event at a time when Pilp, an Orthodox Jew, was observing the Sabbath.

Additionally, Pilip has agreed to just one debate against Suozzi.

What’s nonetheless clear is that Republicans are framing Suozzi and Biden as a threat to their way of life.

“This ain’t about Nassau County, about the North Shore. It’s about the United States of America,” Nassau GOP chairman Joe Cairo said. “We have to stop the nonsense.”

Suozzi may be uniquely positioned to take it all on. Rather than a full-throated defense of Biden, the former representative has shown a readiness to call out obstinance in either party.

“And the Democrats who say, ‘My way or the highway,’ they’re wrong, too,” he said. “The key to solving problems, complicated problems, is compromise.”

Republicans, including Suozzi’s former congressional colleague Pete King, say it may not be enough in a region that has turned red over the years, thanks to the Nassau Republican apparatus.

Democrats say it will have to be.

“This race sets the tone for Long Island, it sets the tone for New York State, it sets the tone for the battle for the House,” said Zak Malamed, a former House candidate who endorsed Suozzi. “Some are describing this race as the Alamo for Nassau County Democrats.”

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