Dems tout special election win as a blueprint to beat Trump, GOP

Democratic U.S. House candidate Tom Suozzi celebrates his victory in the special election to replace Republican Rep. George Santos on February 13, 2024 in Woodbury, New York. 

Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

Democrats aren’t just breathing a sigh of relief after flipping a red seat blue in New York’s special election — they’re taking notes.

Tom Suozzi soundly defeated Republican challenger Mazi Pilip on Tuesday night in the high-profile race to replace scandal-plagued ex-Rep. George Santos, who was expelled in December.

Suozzi’s victory narrows the House Republican majority, making life even more difficult for Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who has already struggled to pass bills along party lines.

President Joe Biden and his reelection campaign are hailing the win as a sweeping repudiation of an avalanche of recent criticism about Biden’s ability to stand at the top of his party’s ticket.

But he and his Democratic allies also see the race as a guidepost for how to defeat former President Donald Trump in the general election, and how to push back on GOP attacks that have dominated the political landscape.

One of their clear takeaways: Don’t shy from the border debate.

Border & voters

Republicans in recent months have relentlessly hammered the Biden administration over its handling of the U.S. southern border, as record numbers of migrants cross over through Mexico. On the same day as the special election in New York, House Republicans voted to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The attacks, including accusations that the White House is consciously refusing to close the border and stem the inflow, clearly resonate with GOP voters who identify immigration as a top concern. Polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the border crisis.

Republicans backing Pilip, who was born in Ethiopia and served in the Israel Defense Forces, worked hard to make the special election a referendum on immigration.

But Suozzi pushed back, leaning into the issue instead of merely decrying the GOP’s preoccupation with the border as a political sideshow. Running on a more moderate platform, Suozzi ran ads exclaiming his support for a secure border and challenged Pilip aggressively during a face-to-face debate.

Crucially, he centered many of his attacks on Pilip’s opposition to a recent bipartisan border security bill. That legislation collapsed after Republican lawmakers, encouraged by Trump, abandoned the proposal that their own leaders helped negotiate.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., quickly identified Suozzi’s strategy as a lesson that Democrats across the country must quickly learn if they want to prevail in November.

“Tom Suozzi’s special election victory last night can serve as a roadmap for Democrats,” Murphy wrote in a memo to his colleagues reported by NBC News on Wednesday.

“He flipped the script on his Republican opponent,” and “turned what could have been a devastating political liability into an advantage,” Murphy wrote.

The senator added, “Quite simply, we risk losing the 2024 election if we do not seize this opportunity to go on offense on the issue of the border and turn the tables on Republicans on a key fall voting issue.”

Special election, special circumstances

Despite Murphy’s warning, many political watchers are quick to note that the New York special election is far from a perfect bellwether for the general election.

Special elections tend to be lower-turnout affairs that draw a more partisan, more enthusiastic pool of voters than that of a general election. New York’s 3rd Congressional District has also bucked a trend toward Democrats in recent years, setting it apart from other affluent, suburban districts.

Additionally, the Republican ticket in the special election may have been weighed down by the baggage left behind by Santos, who was widely rejected by his constituents even before Congress ousted him.

Democrats also far outspent Republicans in the race, and Suozzi may have benefited from strong name ID, having previously represented the district. A major snowstorm that pummeled the northeast on Election Day may have also affected turnout.

New York Republican Chair Ed Cox in a statement Tuesday night blamed “the specific circumstances that brought about this special election” for Pilip’s loss.

But the White House is nevertheless seizing on the outcome as further proof of Biden’s down-ballot coattails and the strength of his agenda.

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That stance also implicitly strikes back at a recent flare-up of concerns in the media about Biden’s mental and physical fitness, stoked by a special counsel report that described Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

A Biden campaign memo shared Wednesday morning said, “Again and again, when it comes time to go to the ballot box, voters are showing up to choose President Biden and Democrats’ agenda of safeguarding freedoms and fighting for working families over the extreme MAGA agenda.”

Biden’s border messaging

As the border bill tanked earlier this month, Biden blamed Trump, accusing him of whipping Republicans to oppose it because he “thinks it’s bad for him politically.”

“Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” Biden said.

The president’s attacks are only ramping up in the wake of the special election.

Tuesday’s results “proved him right,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said of Biden in a statement.

“Tom Suozzi put support for the bipartisan border legislation – and congressional Republicans’ killing of it for politics – at the forefront of his case. The results are unmistakable,” Bates said.

Other Democrats appear to be getting on board. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., told reporters in a debrief Wednesday that while each district is “very different,” Democrats “absolutely” have to talk about immigration.

In a stark example of the Biden administration’s aggressive new messaging, the White House’s X account on Wednesday posted an image of Speaker Johnson next to a derisive Valentine’s Day poem.

It read: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, The border deal was crushed, Because of you.”

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