New York 3 Special: On Weekends, We Campaign

by Jacob Rubashkin February 2, 2024 · 9:31 AM EST

GLEN COVE, N.Y.— Two weeks before the most important special election of the cycle, a solitary Tom Suozzi for Congress staffer sat at a folding table at a campaign headquarters in New York’s 3rd District. Behind him loomed empty shelves bearing signs for GNC supplements and one-hour photo development, a reminder of the massive space’s previous tenant.

The Monday morning scene in a former Rite Aid tucked between a Petco and a liquor store in a Glen Cove shopping center, was mirrored at similarly quiet Suozzi outposts across the district: a former carpet cleaner overlooking Manhasset Bay in Port Washington, a storefront in Bayside, Queens just steps away from a Ben’s Kosher Deli (try the Cel-Ray soda, it counts as a vegetable). 

Suozzi is the Democratic nominee for the special election in New York’s 3rd District, where 15 months ago voters sent George Santos to Congress and on Feb. 13 will get a mulligan on that decision.

The election has significant national implications — House Republicans hold just a five-seat majority, but between resignations and health-related absences, the GOP’s working majority is often just one or two votes. But the energy on the ground doesn’t always appear to match the stakes, and some Democrats are growing concerned that a lack of enthusiasm may diminish their chances against a formidable Republican machine that has won the area in nearly every competitive local, state and federal election since Joe Biden carried the district in 2020. 

“I worry that people in my party look at this district and see the presidential result, and see Suozzi, and assume it’s going to be an easy victory,” one senior New York Democrat told Inside Elections. “But I think it’s going to be very, very tight.”

Democrats know that their path runs squarely through blue districts in New York and California districts such as this one. A win here would not only mean getting a head start on that project, but would also cut down on the number of seats Democrats have to flip elsewhere to get to 218 members.

On one level, the contest has all the trappings of a competitive race. It has attracted millions of dollars in TV ad spending from both parties, $9.8 million through February 1 per AdImpact, with several million more to come, and in one evening news broadcast you can catch spots from both candidates and their allied super PACs in one commercial break. Residents’ mailboxes are probably groaning under the weight of all the literature being distributed. And you can’t drive very far along Port Washington Boulevard without seeing signs for Suozzi and Mazi Pilip, the Republican nominee, though more often you’ll find them in public spaces — traffic medians and intersections — rather than in front lawns.

But with just 14 days to go before Election Day, the district was, all things considered, pretty quiet — especially during the week, when neither candidate is holding public events. On Monday, a scheduled canvassing event in Suozzi’s hometown of Glen Cove brought out one person to the campaign’s office.

Several local Democratic activists and leaders groused that attendance at events and for volunteer canvassing was lacking, especially when compared to Pilip.

“I would have thought that people would be more tuned in to how important this Democratic seat is,” one longtime local official and party activist told Inside Elections. 

“In person, he’s very charming, he can wow people,” the activist said of Suozzi, but that doesn’t help when “[Pilip] gets 800 people in a crowd and we get 50.”

Not everyone feels that way. “You do feel, wherever you go, there’s an energy and urgency,” said Jon Kaiman, a former North Hempstead town supervisor and Democratic candidate for this seat in 2022. “You don’t necessarily see it, but you feel it.”

Suozzi also doesn’t lack for paid ground canvassing support; the League of Conservation and the hotel unions have reported spending roughly $860,000 on canvassing expenses.

And former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran lauded Suozzi’s approach to politicking the district’s diverse political constituencies. “Tom may be the only Democrat who can win this race,” she told Inside Elections over coffee at a diner in Baldwin, just south of the district. She pointed to his schedule on the previous Sunday, which saw him attend an event calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, followed by appearances at a Dim Sum, a Korean church, and meetings with Tibetan and Indian leaders.

Both Suozzi and Pilip’s campaigns say the weekends are where the action is (“much better for coverage,” said one Suozzi advisor.). The weekend of January 27, Pilip’s campaign hosted a big rally with several Republican members of Congress, though the candidate herself was a no-show; for some reason the rally was scheduled on a Saturday, and Pilip, who is an Orthodox Jew, did not attend. Suozzi is planning an event with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries the first weekend in February to kick off early voting.

But with less than two weeks to go before Election Day, that means just four days of weekend campaigning (and that’s including Super Bowl Sunday) compared to 10 days of weekday quiet, including Election Day.

That’s a far cry from the hubbub that has surrounded some of the most significant House special elections in recent memory: Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s ruby-red 18th District in 2018, Jon Ossoff’s narrow loss in Georgia’s 6th the year before, and several races in New York, including upstate wins by Bill Owens and now-Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2009 and 2011.

“There’s typically a very high level of engagement, not only in the district but also engaging out-of-district volunteers to knock doors and make phone calls,” said one national Democratic strategist with extensive experience in special elections. “They usually will send phone banking volunteer asks, and I haven’t gotten any of that,” they said, “which is just kind of weird, actually.”

“Specials I’ve been involved with have had a lot of activity, and felt all-consuming in the weeks leading up to it,” said another Democratic consultant who played a central role in several House special election victories.

“I would have thought there would be more activity, but I can understand why there might not be,” the consultant said, “I don’t think the DCCC or the NRCC really want to be making this a bellwether race.”

In the tradition of special elections, that will be the case until one of them wins, after which the result will be recast by the winner as evidence of momentum, and a harbinger of electoral doom for the loser.

But if Democrats want to get to that point, they have to win the election. And even skeptical local and national Democrats ultimately believe that Suozzi will win, given his name ID and financial advantages over the less experienced Pilip, and the desire among the district’s hard-core Democrats to win back something on Long Island.

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop worrying.

“The worst thing is apathy,” said the local official and activist, “and if we don’t get the people excited in the next two weeks, we’re going to get clobbered.”