GREAT NECK, N.Y. — Voters in this swing district will cast their ballots in a special election Tuesday to replace the indicted and expelled Republican George Santos, presenting a clash of ideologies and an early glimpse into the national political environment in a 2024 battleground.
The competitive election pits Nassau County legislator Mazi Pilip, a Republican, against former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who held this seat before vacating it in the last cycle. Or, as it’s been nicknamed here, the “Mazi vs. Suozzi” race.
“I voted for Suozzi because he has the experience. It was close between Mazi and Suozzi,” said Mark Schneider, of Great Neck, who cast his ballot early. “I’ve never seen so much advertising. You would think it’s a national election, there was so much advertising!”
Schneider said he was disappointed to see Suozzi give up the House seat in 2022 to challenge Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, saying he would have been “a shoo-in to win” re-election to Congress that year. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a very close final result.”
Debra, a Long Island voter who asked that her last name not be used, said her biggest concern is crime. She voted early for Pilip in the special election.
“I supported Mazi because I think she’s a little tougher on crime and, to be honest with you, that’s what the whole country is afraid of: the crime,” she said. “We don’t care about democracy. That’s already done. We’re worried about the drugs, the violence, the immigration, the border. That’s what people are really worried about. I mean, what happened in the Capitol is horrible, but guess what? They were protected. Our children are not.”
The two voters appear reflective of the divided district, where both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are underwater in popularity polls ahead of an apparent 2024 rematch.
A Newsday/Siena College poll taken Feb. 3-6 shows a narrow edge for Suozzi, who is a known quantity here after serving in the House for six years. Suozzi had 48%, while Pilip had 44%, just inside the survey’s margin of error.
Jody Kass Finkel, a longtime resident of the district, was so angry about the election of Santos that she came out of retirement to get involved and oust him. She created the group Concerned Citizens of NY-03, which is working to help elect Suozzi.
“I just was furious,” Finkel said in an interview. “I was gonna go back to retirement but I decided, nope, gotta do something for my community.”
“I’m kind of appalled that it’s close because I saw the debate and you can’t watch that debate and think that she’s ready to be our representative. I just, I felt insulted watching her,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who really liked her a lot. But watching that, I just don’t understand. She’s so unqualified to be in Washington.”
The Siena College survey found that Suozzi has a net favorable rating, while Pilip is slightly in negative territory. But twice as many voters had no opinion on Pilip than on Suozzi.
Notably, Pilip held a 9-point lead on addressing the migrant influx into the United States, which has melded together with crime as top-of-mind issues for voters. The Democratic brand is weak on those questions, polling shows, which fueled GOP victories here and in other New York City-area suburban districts in the 2022 midterm elections.
Suozzi has acknowledged that his party has an image problem on border security, and he’s spending heavily to combat Pilip’s arguments and Republican ads tying him to the left wing of his party on immigration. Presenting himself as a centrist, Suozzi often highlights that he was one of just 18 House Democrats who voted with Republicans in 2018 on a resolution supporting ICE.
Joe Allen, a Long Island voter, reflects the recent blue-to-red shift in this district. He backed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Then he voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Then in 2020, he flipped to Donald Trump and plans to support him again in 2024.
Allen said he plans to vote for Pilip on Tuesday.
“How could you have an argument that it makes sense to have an open border in the country? And to me, and I think to a lot of people in this country, we kind of look at it as — the only reason they would want to have the border open is so that they could import more voters and retain control for the socialist turnover that they’re trying to do within this country,” Allen said. “I believe in America. … I think that across both lines, we’re getting to a point where there’s total corruption in politics.”
But on other issues, Suozzi has an advantage. The Siena College survey found that voters favor Suozzi by 23 points to address abortion, by 9 points to protect democracy and by 10 points on “making Congress work more effectively for the American people.” Pilip has struggled to articulate a position on abortion but called herself “pro-life” in a recent debate.
A through-line for voters here, regardless of who they support, is a shared feeling that neither party is focused on their biggest issues — and that they were embarrassed by Santos.
“Oh my god. If I lied on my resume, I would have been fired the next day,” said Debra, the Pilip supporter. “He stayed too long. He’s a nice guy, I’m sure, but not to run this country.”
Suozzi is seeking to tie Pilip to Santos, describing her as similarly nontransparent about herself and where she stands on major issues, like abortion and gun control. But it’s not clear that will work.
“I think he’s a little bit of a kook,” Allen said of Santos. “I didn’t vote for him, or I don’t really stand by him in particular. I’m kind of an independent. … But if he was on the ballot this time, I definitely wouldn’t vote for him.”
Schneider noted that this special election, with the eyes of the nation watching, wouldn’t be happening if not for Santos.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “Disappointed that he wasn’t vetted better. And this whole thing is because of that issue.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com