Immigration heats up N.Y. special election, testing Democrats’ tougher talk

NEW YORK — GOP candidate Mazi Pilip has made repeat appearances at a playground across the street from white tents — set up to house a thousand migrants bused in from the southern border, whom she calls a threat to public safety. Republicans have spent almost all of their TV budget for her battleground U.S. House race on immigration ads, broadcasting grainy footage of an assault on police officers and warning of an “invasion.”

Many Democrats have long denounced such dire descriptions as fearmongering, or sidestepped debates about the border. But their nominee in Tuesday’s special election, Tom Suozzi, recently said he takes no issue with Republicans’ use of the word “invasion.” And he is taking the fight to his rival on what he agrees is a catastrophe, reflecting a broader tactical shift Democrats are making in this year’s elections.

“It’s a very serious problem with people crossing our border in a very unvetted, chaotic fashion, and it needs to be addressed,” Suozzi said at a recent news conference focused on the issue. He assailed Pilip and other Republicans’ opposition to a bipartisan border deal that collapsed spectacularly in Congress: “Everyone agrees that this is the toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border that we’ve had in decades.”

The battle for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which could narrow the GOP’s slim House majority, has become a high-profile test of Republicans’ ability to campaign on immigration in 2024 and Democrats’ capacity to fight back, or at least blunt the damage, on what polls show is perhaps their toughest issue headed toward November.

The GOP is putting immigration at the center of its appeals to voters in New York, where several highly competitive House races will play out this year and where migrant busing has left local Democratic leaders begging for federal help. Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, is reprising his central campaign promise from 2016, vowing to “close the border” and carry out “the largest deportation operation in American history” and describing undocumented immigrants with increasingly dark, dehumanizing language.

Democrats recognize they are losing the border debate with voters, and some are trying to tackle the vulnerability head-on. In New York, they are running ads defending Suozzi’s border record alongside spots on a far more favorable issue for them, abortion. They are also criticizing Republicans for backing away from the congressional border deal over what some acknowledge is a political calculation — an aversion to handing President Biden an election-year victory on Trump’s signature campaign issue. Trump has derided the package as too lenient.

Biden said last month that he was ready to “shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed,” if the compromise in Congress passed. The comments marked a stark shift in tone for a president who on his first day in office introduced a measure that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and whose aides once avoided describing the border situation as a crisis. But Democrats are divided, with activists and more liberal lawmakers pushing back. And even more centrist Democrats like Suozzi have found immigration to be a vulnerability.

If Pilip — a little-known member of the Nassau County legislature — can beat Suozzi, a familiar face who represented an old iteration of the 3rd District for several years previously, that would ratchet up Democrats’ concern about their headwinds in 2024.

“He is an excellent talker,” Pilip said of Suozzi on Friday on Fox News. “He likes to talk. He has been doing this for many, many years.” But, she said, “he failed to protect our borders. He failed to protect us as Americans.”

The politics of immigration have changed in New York, where officials have budgeted billions to accommodate more than 100,000 migrants who arrived in New York City from the southern border over the past year, and have struggled to meet local requirements to shelter people without housing. Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has channeled bipartisan frustration, at one point declaring that “this issue will destroy New York City.”

Many of the migrants show up on buses arranged by authorities in Texas, where Republican leaders say they are similarly overwhelmed and eager to send the migrants to liberal cities that have declared themselves “sanctuaries” for the undocumented.

Republicans are appealing to voters like John Muniz, who lives near the migrant tents in Queens that became a lightning rod for the border debate. The border “is really all I care about at this point, because it’s getting dangerous out there,” said Muniz, 44, who had heard about the video — now playing in GOP attack ads — that shows a group of migrants attacking police in Times Square.

Muniz said he doesn’t pay much attention to politics: He once voted for Barack Obama and then skipped the 2016 and 2020 elections. But he plans to vote for Trump this fall because of his alarm at illegal border crossings.

“We need Trump back,” Muniz declared. “When he first ran, I was totally against him, but we need him. … He’ll do something about it immediately.”

The congressional race — a dead heat according recent polling and strategists — is playing out in a suburban Long Island district that favored Biden by 8 points in 2020, and then backed Republican George Santos for Congress by 8 points in the 2022 midterms. Congress voted to expel Santos after the freshman was indicted on allegations of fraud and found to have fabricated much of his résumé, prompting a Feb. 13 special election to replace him.

Plucked to represent the GOP while still registered as a Democrat, Pilip emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel and served in the military there before coming to the United States. She is battling critics’ suggestions that she’s untested — an argument opponents have ramped up in the final stretch with ads comparing her to Santos. She’s tapping into voters’ anger at prices, crime and, above all, the migrant situation in New York.

Suozzi represented the area in Congress for six years before leaving to run unsuccessfully for governor. He has pitched himself as a champion of bipartisan compromise who would fit the district’s purple hue. Democrats have had the edge nationwide in recent special elections, which tend to hinge on parties’ ability to turn out their most engaged voters in the political offseason.

But Republicans have a strong local operation and have won Long Island races in recent years. And Suozzi is trying to separate himself from a president and party many voters view negatively, as GOP canvassers fan out with cards attacking “The Biden/Suozzi Record.”

Democrats are betting that other issues, such as abortion and Social Security, will turn out their base. Four New York seats are among the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s list of a dozen Republican incumbents in the House most vulnerable in November.

Yet they’ve also poured money into countering Republicans’ border criticisms. They’ve tried to remind voters that in 2018, Suozzi was one of 18 Democrats who joined Republicans to vote for a resolution supporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as some liberal colleagues called to abolish the agency. And that in 2019, he proposed a “grand compromise” on immigration with a Republican lawmaker.

Still, Republicans have zeroed in on Suozzi’s comment during a 2022 gubernatorial debate that he “kicked ICE out of Nassau County,” a sound bite that has played in commercial after commercial. Suozzi says he was responding to raids that swept up many legal residents and led to guns being drawn on local police.

Jay Jacobs, chair of the Democratic Party in New York state as well as Nassau County, likened Republicans’ laser-focus on immigration to their strategy in 2022: a highly successful effort to tap into New Yorkers’ outrage over crime and bail reform.

“They find an issue and they either scare voters or they make them angry, and if they’re really lucky they do both,” Jacobs said.

Strategists often advise candidates to change the conversation as much as possible to the topics most favorable to them, and some Democrats are wary of spending too much time on GOP turf this year. But other operatives are urging the party to talk about immigration — in the same way many Republicans have advised their candidates to tackle abortion, their thorniest issue, rather than cede it to Democrats.

“You can’t change the subject if that’s what the voters are interested in,” Jacobs said. “Well, right now, voters are interested in what’s happening at the border.”

Polls on immigration policy are full of red flags for Democrats. Voters trust Trump more than Biden on the issue by more than 30 points, the widest gap of any issue tested, according to a national NBC News survey conducted late last month. A recent ABC/Ipsos poll found that 18 percent of voters approved of Biden’s handling of immigration at the southern border, half of the share that approved in spring of 2021.

And in New York state, 35 percent of registered Democrats in the fall viewed migrants coming to the state in recent decades as a “burden” — about the same as the 37 percent who viewed them as a “benefit.”

Suozzi acknowledged at a rally this month — to shouts of approval — that “people are upset Democrats haven’t been tough enough on things like the border.” Asked later where he differed from Biden on the issue, Suozzi said he was “happy that the president has been taking a firmer position.”

“I think the president should make this his own issue,” he added.

Beyond the special election, the immigration debate has resonated in other nearby battlegrounds.

“You have many people who live in that district, just like mine, who commute to the city every day. And clearly the city is a different place under what’s happened,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Republican from Long Island whose seat will also be hotly contested this fall.

Democratic challengers to D’Esposito have already drawn attention to his opposition to the border deal. D’Esposito and other GOP critics have blasted the bill as too lenient and said that Biden could act on his own if he wanted. Some supporters of the bill say it’s all about politics now that Trump has turned against the measure.

The legislation traded GOP-favored border security for Ukraine funding championed more by Democrats, attempting to remove migrants more speedily and bar entry for most people if daily crossings hit a threshold the country has already surpassed.

The political awkwardness of the bill’s failure was apparent at Pilip’s news conference last week outside the Queens migrant shelter. She was there to receive the endorsement of National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd — who had just announced his support for the border deal.

Reporters immediately brought up Pilip’s statement that the bill just codified “the invasion,” and Judd downplayed their differences, saying he agrees the legislation has “poisonous pills.”

It’s not clear that Democrats’ arguments about compromise will break through to the many voters who blame the party in the White House and believe the president should do more.

“You have to shut down the border completely,” said George Paul, 59, who lives near the Queens migrant tents and showed up Wednesday to Pilip’s news conference, ready to support her even though he voted for Democrats up and down the ballot in 2020 and remains registered with the party.

At an early voting site in Pilip’s town of Great Neck, where lawns are full of signs for “Mazi,” another voter considered crossing party lines in the opposite direction.

Accompanying his wife to the polling site, registered Republican Mel Feuerman said he was undecided and wanted his representative in Congress to work across the aisle. He admired Pilip’s personal story, had seen her around town and appreciated that while she was “pro-life,” she expressed opposition to a national abortion ban.

Then a reporter mentioned that Pilip had denounced the border deal in Congress.

“That’s Trump’s line — she’s following Trump’s line,” said Feuerman, 84, who is dreading a Biden-Trump rematch. “They were working on this border deal forever, and that schmuck Trump says something, then they all —” He trailed off.

“That’s ridiculous,” he quickly added. “I don’t like that.”

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

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