What the Long Island special election tells us about the battle over the suburbs

The nation’s suburbs are moving toward Democrats. But not on Long Island.

Republicans have a three-year winning streak in the close-in suburbs east of New York City — places that rejected then-President Donald Trump in 2020 but have turned red amid concerns about crime and, more recently, immigration.

Next week’s special election to replace ousted Rep. George Santos will test whether they can maintain their recent stranglehold on those New York suburbs. Former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi is running against Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip. Both independent and partisan polling shows the race is tight.

For Democrats, a win would — among other things — suggest a way to overcome ongoing Republican attacks over crime and immigration, which they concede are a major problem for their party’s image.

“Voters in this particular district see headlines several times a week about migrants being bused into New York City,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who held the seat before retiring in 2016. “People on Long Island really do have the perception that migrants are flooding New York City, and the border isn’t under control.”

If Democrats are successful, it may be simply because they are building on nationwide trends among upscale suburban voters. New York’s 3rd Congressional District isn’t just suburban: It has some of the most affluent and educated voters in the country. It ranks 16th in median earnings, and 30th in the percentage of adults with college degrees.

That’s what’s made Republican wins there so confounding for Democrats, who hold nearly every other district with similar metrics on education and income.

New York’s 3rd District — roughly three-quarters of which is in suburban Nassau County with the other quarter in the outer New York City borough of Queens — is one of the 11 districts Republicans won in the last election that ranks in the top 50 for adults with college degrees. And GOP candidates only won two of the top 20 districts in median earnings, New York’s 3rd included, in 2022.

If Republicans can pull off a victory, it will offer a blueprint for a suburban comeback elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean the result of next week’s special election will be a perfect bellwether for November. That’s because these particular suburbs may just be very different from others in the country. The district — and Long Island more broadly — has been racing toward Republicans at a time when Democrats are increasingly dominant in suburbs in other parts of the country.

In addition to Santos’ victory, Republicans swept the other three House seats on Long Island, including a neighboring seat also based in Nassau County that voted for now-President Joe Biden by 13 points in 2020 but elected Republican Anthony D’Esposito to Congress in 2022.

Races for state and local offices on Long Island have followed a similar pattern. Then-Rep. Lee Zeldin won both Nassau and Suffolk counties by double digits in 2022, and the GOP now controls the county executive offices in both counties, flipping each seat in the past three years.

Some GOP strategists point to a pattern of improved Republican performance in blue states — with increasing dissatisfaction with Democratic control — since Trump left office. In addition to the Long Island seats Republicans flipped a couple of House seats in the 2022 midterms in places like California and New Jersey, even as they struggled to make inroads in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The only better-educated and more affluent district than New York’s 3rd that Republicans currently hold is also in a New York City suburb: the Northern New Jersey seat currently represented by Rep. Tom Kean Jr., who won narrowly in 2022.

“Our wins the last two cycles have come overwhelmingly in all sorts of blue states, and in the suburbs outside of big cities in those blue states,” said Dan Conston, the president of Congressional Leadership Fund, the top House GOP super PAC, which is set to spend $4.3 million on advertising in the district, data from AdImpact show. That’s a hefty sum, in large part because New York is the most expensive media market in the country.

Close observers in both parties returned to the subjects of crime and immigration as the key issues in the New York race, and the campaign ad spending confirms that. Every ad Republicans have aired in the New York race has focused on immigration, according to AdImpact.

“It’s part of the country where they’re not even close to the Mexican border, and it’s the number-one issue,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster with extensive experience on Long Island. “They’re really worried about crime, and they’re saying it’s about immigration.”

The Republican tactic is forcing Democrats to respond. Roughly half of all the ads from Suozzi’s campaign have also touched on immigration. The ad he’s run more frequently than any other begins with the line, “You’ve been hearing a lot of nonsense blaming Tom Suozzi for the migrant problem.”

Israel, Suozzi’s predecessor in Congress and a former chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm, isn’t sure that directly answering the attacks on immigration is the wisest course of action.

“I always advise folks in politics: Never play on your opponent’s turf. Don’t cede them the message. Don’t acknowledge the message. The Suozzi campaign has made their own tactical, strategic decision that they must message on that turf,” he said. “ I’m very interested to see whether that decision was the correct one. And if it was, then it will play out in suburban congressional districts across America.”

Both parties may be spending a lot for a fleeting victory. Democrats in Albany are expected to redraw New York’s congressional map before the November election. And Long Island, which is currently represented by three Republicans in addition to the vacant Santos seat, will be a top target.

“This is the most expensive rental of a district that I’ve ever seen, because it’s going to change,” said Israel, citing the flurry of campaign advertising. “Democrats will focus on it in redistricting going into November.”


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