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Wealthiest NYC Suburb Splits Over What’s Next After Santos Mess

(Bloomberg) -- The ads are negative and hard to escape.

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One accuses Democrat Tom Suozzi of being soft on immigration. Another ties his opponent, Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip, to George Santos, the disgraced con artist congressman they’re trying to replace.

And the spots run endlessly — the morning shows, the nightly news and even Sunday’s Super Bowl.

It’s what almost $20 million in political spending packed into an eight-week campaign brings to a single congressional race. In this case it’s a special election in New York’s 3rd district, a string of bedroom communities in Queens and Nassau County on Long Island that happens to be the richest district in New York and the fourth-wealthiest in the US.

The election on Tuesday, which polls show is a toss-up, has morphed into a referendum on immigration, Israel and abortion. A Democratic win will almost certainly create more chaos in the US House of Representatives, which Republicans currently control by a razor-thin margin. A GOP victory could demonstrate how Biden’s handling of immigration has tainted the party’s brand in down-ballot races.

But it’s also being closely watched as a portent of which party will control Congress and the White House next year.

“What plays in the 3rd district — which is about as prototypically suburban as you could get — is likely to play in Orange County, California; Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania; Oakland County, Michigan; and other competitive places,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

The two candidates have starkly different backgrounds. Suozzi is a 61-year-old moderate Democrat who held the seat for three terms until 2023. Pilip is a 44-year-old county legislator with an extraordinary biography: She was airlifted to Israel from Ethiopia as a child during Operation Solomon and later served in the Israeli army before immigrating to the US.

NY-3 is a warren of hamlets, towns and villages, each with its own distinctive — some would say tribal — character. Manhasset is dotted with churches, while Great Neck is home to a significant population of Orthodox and Persian Jews, many of whom resettled there after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Largely White but with a sizable and growing East Asian and South Asian population, the district is a place of fabulous wealth. Its northern reaches include the elaborate Gilded Age mansions of Sands Point, the part of Long Island F. Scott Fitzgerald made famous as East Egg in The Great Gatsby.

But it’s also a place of storied grievances: The district is just 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan by train, and the problems of America’s largest city are omnipresent. The district’s property taxes, among the highest in the country, are a perennial source of complaint.

The area has recently been a swing district. Among active voters, 39% are registered Democrats and 28% are registered Republicans. But another 28% aren’t enrolled in any political party, and they’re up for grabs.

GOP Control

Voters in the district handed Joe Biden an 8-point victory in 2020 and have chosen the Democratic nominee for president in every election save the 2004 contest over the past 30 years. But its leadership at every other level of government had routinely changed hands between Republican and Democratic control.

Since 2020, however, Republicans have won an astonishing string of victories in the area, thanks to a disciplined and effective county party organization that’s proved adept at turning out votes. The GOP now controls virtually every elected office in Nassau County.

In the 2022 midterms, voters elected the then-unknown Santos by an 8-point margin, in an election backlash to Democratic leadership nationally and locally. It was seen as a referendum on high inflation and a then-poor prognosis for the national economy. A post-pandemic crime spike, which Republicans blamed on Democrat-led criminal justice reforms statewide, spurred disaffection among voters toward local and state Democratic leadership in Albany.

The race has divided neighborhoods and even families. Billionaire Ron Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, is supporting Pilip’s campaign, while his older brother, billionaire Leonard Lauder, gave $3,300 to Suozzi. And former Trump administration staffer and SkyBridge Capital founder Anthony Scaramucci, a Manhasset resident who recently spoke out in favor of Republican Chris Christie’s failed presidential bid, donated $3,300 to Suozzi’s campaign, federal campaign finance records show.

Scaramucci predicted a Suozzi victory.

“Tom will win the race primarily because he was a great representative for Long Island in the House for many years,” he said. “The secondary reasons are related to the fallout from George Santos, and from the disfiguration of the current Republican Party.”

Read more: Santos Expelled From Congress After Tumultuous Year of Lies

On paper, the odds should favor Suozzi, who has broad name recognition and popularity. He’s out-raised Pilip by 3 to 1, and his campaign and surrogates have spent more than $13 million on the race so far, compared with roughly $6.2 million in spending from Pilip’s campaign and PACs supporting her.

But interviews with residents suggest the contest is extraordinarily close, and two recent polls show Suozzi narrowly leading Pilip but within the margin of error.

On a recent weekday in Manhasset, Tudor Revival and Dutch Colonial homes with neatly manicured lawns and SUVs in the driveway sported competing Pilip and Suozzi lawn signs, a hint of how close the contest has become. In a recent CNN interview, Suozzi openly worried about his chances. “It’s a very tough seat,” he said.

Democratic strategists say the national playbook that’s garnered party wins in other recent House races — focusing on the potential Republican threat to abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade — doesn’t work as well in New York, where reproductive rights aren’t in imminent danger.

A mid-January Emerson poll showed a plurality of voters, 26%, ranked immigration as their top concern, compared with just 4% who cited abortion access as their top issue. Many district residents commute into New York City, where more than 170,000 migrants have arrived since April 2022, straining the city’s budget and logistical resources and turning a spotlight on the Biden administration’s handling of border security.

Pilip’s campaign and surrogates are saturating the airwaves with ads tying Suozzi to Biden on immigration and border policy, including an ad quoting Suozzi saying “I kicked ICE out of Nassau County” during his ill-fated 2022 gubernatorial primary campaign.

Pilip, a mother of seven, has been a spectral presence on the campaign trail, participating in few public events, holding just one formal press conference and agreeing to a single debate, five days before Tuesday’s election.

But she’s made time in her sparse public schedule for multiple appearances outside the state-run Creedmoor psychiatric facility in Queens, where city officials last year erected a temporary tent shelter to house 1,000 migrants. She attacked Suozzi and Biden on immigration policy and announced an endorsement from the national union of customs and border patrol officers.

Keeping Distance

Suozzi is trying to distance himself from Democrats in power, especially the 81-year-old Biden, who faced renewed concern about his age last week after a special counsel report about his handling of classified documents described him as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

Read more: Biden Age Woes Grow With DOJ Report Citing ‘Poor Memory’

A PAC supporting Suozzi is running ads touting his work with former Republican Representative Peter King on bipartisan immigration legislation, and he is pointedly staying far away from Biden, who visited New York City for a fundraiser last week but steered clear of the NY-3 trail.

“I can pretty much guarantee the president is not going to be coming to campaign,” Suozzi told CNN. “I don’t think it would be helpful.”

Privately, some Democratic strategists conceded that Republicans’ choice of Pilip, an Israeli woman of color and registered Democrat whose bona fides among Jewish voters are close to impeccable, was potentially a stroke of brilliance, despite Suozzi’s strong record of supporting Israel.

Republicans are letting Pilip’s resume speak for itself, a strategy that could prove effective for a candidate who has little political experience.

And while Suozzi might be having some success turning out Democratic voters concerned about Pilip’s pro-life stance on abortion, Israel may be an equally compelling issue for some of the district’s residents.

On a recent weekday outside the Everfresh kosher supermarket in Great Neck, Aharon Cohen, a 65-year-old who identified himself as a swing voter, said he planned to vote for Pilip, who he frequently runs into at his local synagogue.

“The only thing that is concerning is that I heard she is pro-life. But I’m going to ask her before I’m going to vote,” Cohen said. “She’s pro-Israel and a good friend to the community. We like her very much.”

Outside Bar Frites, a popular upscale restaurant in Greenvale’s Wheatley Plaza shopping center, Mineola resident Cary Weinberg, who is Jewish, was eager to share that he intended to vote for Suozzi because women’s issues are his top concern.

“My heritage is being a liberal Democrat, so I’ll go with Suozzi,” Weinberg said. “This is a liberal Jewish area.”

--With assistance from Greg Giroux.

(Updates with comment from Scaramucci in 17th paragraph)

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