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Why special election to replace George Santos matters beyond New York

George Santos and reporters
Republicans and Democrats are pouring millions of dollars race into the race to replace former Congressman George Santos.

George Santos walked the halls of Capitol Hill for less than a year as a congressman before his colleagues expelled him last December over allegations of fraud.

Voting is now under way to pick his successor in New York's Third Congressional District, with the Republican and Democratic parties pouring millions of dollars into the race that ends on Tuesday.

Former Congressman Tom Suozzi is running as the Democrat and local official Mazi Pilip, a black Israeli-American who served in the Israel Defence Forces, is the Republican candidate. The winner will represent parts of New York City and Long Island, and polls show the race is neck-and-neck.

Mr Santos' antics may have dominated Washington for months, but voters in this district appear more focused on issues that will likely be a factor in the forthcoming presidential race - the Israel-Hamas war, immigration, and abortion. Both parties are now testing their political messaging in this swing district.

With a razor-thin margin in the House of Representatives, Republicans are eager to win the race to more easily pass their legislative priorities before the election. Democrats, meanwhile, want to secure the seat to help their growing coalition and to gain traction before November.

The Israel-Hamas war resonates in the race

Following the 7 October Hamas attacks, both parties have vowed to back Israel. But in this district, which boasts a large Jewish population, that support could prove crucial to winning the special election.

The issue is so important for both candidates that they appeared together at a January event in support of the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas.

"Your pain, our pain," Ms Pilip said to attendees.

Ms Pilip is an Orthodox Jew who fled her home country of Ethiopia to Israel in 1991 to escape discrimination and later moved to the US. Recruited by the local Republican Party, she has represented Great Neck - a wealthy community in Long Island - in the Nassau County legislature since 2022.

Mr Suozzi declared in February that he was "unequivocally pro-Israel" and condemned the recent failure by Congress to pass aid for Israel. He travelled to Israel just before Christmas to further illustrate his support.

Jared Konsker, a 33-year-old Jewish voter in the district, told the BBC that he is backing Ms Pilip because she is a "bigtime supporter of Israel, which is crucial in the time we're living in right now".

Not all Jewish voters are basing their vote solely on Israel, however.

Ben Marzouk, a local Republican who was part of a grassroots effort to oust Mr Santos, said he was backing Mr Suozzi because of his experience in government.

The border crisis comes to Nassau County

The record number of migrants crossing the US southern border has become a key driver for American voters this year, and the candidates in this special election are not ignoring it.

Ms Pilip has sought to tie New York City's influx of migrants and the border crisis to Mr Suozzi and the Democratic party.

Anthony D'Esposito, a Republican congressman who represents a neighbouring district and is a key surrogate for Ms Pilip, said the race was "a referendum on policies that have failed the American people, in a district that is legitimately thousands of miles from the southern border".

In turn, Mr Suozzi has blamed Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a bipartisan legislative package that would have reduced border crossings and limited asylum.

The former congressman has not ignored the problem but "leaned into" it, according to Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Party.

Democrats put abortion front and centre

Abortion has proved a winning issue for Democrats since the US Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that state governments can choose to ban the procedure.

Ms Pilip, a mother of seven, has tried to thread the needle on the issue. At a televised debate on Thursday, she said that every woman should be able to make her own choice.

"I'm not going to force my own belief to any woman," she said, though she later admitted that she opposed abortion - a comment Mr Suozzi seized upon.

Tom Suozzi and supporters
Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, said that his opponent is a threat to abortion rights

Vivian Brash, 65, and her husband, both Great Neck residents, were torn on which candidate to support due to "the Israel cause".

They chose to vote for Mr Suozzi because of the abortion issue.

"We have a daughter, we have granddaughters," Ms Brash told the BBC. "It's important for women to make their own decisions."

The third person in this race: George Santos

Republicans want to move past the debacle that was their last congressman and Democrats have found that voters are not moved by using Mr Santos - who faces a multi-count federal indictment for money laundering, fraud and other charges - as a political cudgel.

"We've been without representation for so long, there's been a hunger to actually talk about the issues," said Kimberly Garber Keiserman, who led a grassroots voter group that formed to remove Mr Santos from office.

Still, it is inarguable that Mr Santos is looming over the race.

Mr Suozzi and his allies have cast Ms Pilip as "Santos 2.0" and reminded voters what happens when they choose a candidate with a short political resume.

Ms Pilip has been accused by her opponent of not engaging enough with the public and the press, which has fed accusations that she, like Mr Santos, lacks transparency.

But she maintains any parallels to Mr Santos are all created by Mr Suozzi.

"He wants to create these feelings of me and Santos in the same place," Ms Pilip said recently on Fox News. "Come on, let's focus on the real issues."