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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. Today, voters in New York will choose the successor to George Santos, the disgraced Republican who was expelled from Congress in December. Democrats would seem to have the advantage. Instead, it's a dead heat. My colleague, nick Fandos, explains why and tells me how the results of the race will hold important clues for both parties come November. It's Tuesday, February 13th.


So, nick, you've been following the race for the seat formerly occupied by George Santos. Setting aside Santos' brief and riveting Congressional tenure, I'd like to start with the most basic question, which is, why does this race over this one house seat on Long Island matter?


It's a great question. Now, I'd start by saying, let's not just so quickly race over George Santos. This was a guy whose year-long embarrassment put this district on the map, I think left a lot of voters there really exacerbated.


I mean, it is probably the reason why you and I are talking right now.


That's very true. But we're also talking because this is a really special district. We're talking about a slice of Queens and Long Island that is racially diverse, ethnically diverse, got people of all kinds of socioeconomic statuses. As such, It's the type of place that we see all over the country where elections are probably going to be decided later this year for President and for control of the House of Representatives. This area has swung back and forth a lot. President Biden won this district eight points in 2020. Then two years later, in 2022, George Santos was one of a handful of Republicans who flipped seats right here in New York that helped the Republican Party take the majority in the House.


I remember that. That was a big election that Republicans just had a wipe out in New York.


Yeah. When Santos was expelled in December, this race becomes a really big deal for both parties. There's a couple of reasons for that. If the Democrats can win and flip this seat, they could narrow Republicans' majority right now in the present at a time when they're trying to impeach the Homeland Security Secretary or fund the government and make their life a lot more difficult. But it also is a race that's going to set the tone for the rest of 2024 and give the parties an early preview of where the elections are headed. For all of those reasons, Democrats feel like this is a really good pickup opportunity for us.


Also, they're coming out of the Santos train crash, so it's logical they would think that.


Right, exactly. But instead, as we head into election today, we're looking at a statistical dead heat.


nick, what's your understanding of why the race is so close?


I think that there's really two issues that have come to dominate this race above anything else. One of them is a big international issue that has a particular local resonance, and that's the war unfolding right now in Gaza. This is one of the most Jewish districts in the country, and a lot of voters are looking very closely at both candidates and how they're approaching this. The other one is an issue that's headlines and conversations in Washington and all over the country right now. That is the situation at the Southern border, where we've seen a historic influx of migrants trying to cross, and the Biden administration is struggling to figure out what to do about it.


Okay, so let's talk about the candidates and how they're dealing with those issues. So introduce me to the Republican.


Right. So the Republican in this race is a woman named Mazy Pillup.


The future of our nation is a stake in this race for the third Congressional district on February 13.


She's a local part-time legislator in Nassau County with relatively little political experience. This is shown on the campaign trail. She's really not doing a lot of public events. She doesn't speak in an unscripted way. A lot of her positions, frankly, have been hard for us to hash out. But in this particular moment, she has a really remarkable personal story that I think she's been able to deathly use in the campaign.


I grew up in Israel Israel. Israel for me, a special place.


She was actually born in Ethiopia, and as a young child, was airlifted to Israel, where she grew up.


I got my education. I served in the Israeli army very proud.


And served as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces.


Wow. So she served in the military?


She did, yeah, and has family members who still live over there.


My family, my entire family live in Israel. My nephews, as we speak, fighting the terrorists.


She married a Ukrainian-American doctor, moved to New York, and settled on Long Island. She said very explicitly that October seventh changed her in a very significant way.


For me, This is so personal, so painful.


It propelled her to want to run in this race.


This is attack on the world. We have to remember, we have to be strong. I'm Israel. Hi. Thank you.


To confront both what she sees as anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism creeping up all around the world and in American politics, particularly, she says, on the left of the Democratic Party.


How does she present what she would do on Israel? I mean, who is she in terms of the policy stuff with Israel?


Yeah, so she is a very staunch defender of Israel. You wouldn't be surprised. She doesn't want to put any condition on American aid to Israel. She thinks a ceasefire is a deeply unjust solution. She, in fact, has gone so far since October seventh that she now says a two-state solution, a Palestinian and Israeli state, is no longer even possible. Oh, wow. It should just all be Israel.


That's very different than President Biden's position, for example.


That's right. It's one of the few things that separates her from her Democratic opponent on this issue.


Tell me about her Democratic opponent. Who is he?


All right, everybody. Well, my name is Tom Swazi, and I'm running for the United States Congress.


The Democrat in this race is Tom Swazi. He's a really well-known Democrat locally. He's been around for 30 years. He was the Nassau County executive, and he was, in fact, a three-term member of Congress representing this very seat.


In my case, you've got somebody that you know. Somebody has been around. Somebody has got a proven record of getting things done.


Before he decided to run for governor, it didn't go so well, and Santos got elected. On this issue, he's presenting himself as staunchly pro-Israel as Pillip is. He doesn't want to condition aid. He's against a ceasefire.


Okay, I got to Israel about seven hours ago to show solidarity with our friends here in Israel and with our Jewish friends throughout the world.


Even in this incredibly short campaign, he took time out to fly over to Israel to prove his bona fides.


It reminds us that evil exists in the world, and we have to stand strong and defeat this terrorist operation.


Okay, so clear why they're both doing that because it's a very Jewish district. But why is this an issue in this district at all then? They're both pretty similar.


I think there's two parts to understanding this. One is the unique appeal of Pillup's story. Remember how I said she was in the IDF? She's also an Orthodox Jew. She has seven kids who she says she worries about facing anti-Semitism in the United States. She has family in Israel.


Our brothers and sisters got attacked by a terrorist organization.


She has made concerns about this issue visceral in her campaign, a centerpiece of her campaign in a way that, frankly, I haven't really seen another candidate do out on the trail.


I promise bless you, the Jewish people, the state of Israel, the American people will make you pay the price you deserve.


She's basically giving Jewish voters who are uncomfortable or nervous in this moment feel historically unsettled an opportunity to vote for someone like them and somebody who is really going to go to Congress and be a voice. Nobody doubts that this is going to be a centerpiece of her identity in Congress. At the same time, Swazi is dealing with this other problem, which is not so much about him, but about his party. There's a concern right now, I think, among a lot of American Jews and a lot of voters that I've talked to in this race and rabbis, that the Democratic Party's left flank has become increasingly skeptical or even hostile to Israel. They may be fine with Tom Swazi, but they're just really worried about voting for Democrats at all right now. They either want to make a protest or punish the party because they don't like the direction that it's going.


What's his message to them?


Yeah. So Swazi is directly addressing this and saying, Actually, I agree with you, but that's the reason you've got to elect me.


Another Republican that supports Israel is not adding much to the equation.


You don't need another super strong, pro-Israel Republican. We've got plenty of those. You need somebody that is going to stand up and get in the trenches and fight with his own party. That's how we put up a bulwark against this. It's within the Democratic Party.


What we need are strong, outspoken pro-Israel Democrats that will stand up for Israel and will stand up to the extreme left.


I'm the guy to do that.


I am uniquely set up to fight exactly the force that you were most afraid of, which is progressives on the left side of the Democratic Party.


Exactly. In my reporting, I've seen all kinds of signs that voters are really torn over this. In one part of the district, and this is where Pillip is actually from, you have a really large population of Orthodox Jews and Iranian Jews who have become very politically conservative in recent years. Her campaign is banking on the fact that they are going to be super motivated and come out with huge numbers, and that matters in a low turnout election. There's also a group of voters that are just diehard Democrats. They're Jews, they might be concerned about Israel, but they I don't support her because of her ties to the Republican Party and Trump or whatever the reason. But there seems to be a contingent in the middle of moderate to liberal American Jews who maybe would have sided with Democrats, who have been an important part of their coalition for a long time, that are now looking a lot more closely at this choice. I talk to rabbis who are describing congregations that are pretty split down the middle. Jewish voters who say they don't know which way to go. They like Swazi personally, but they've never seen a candidate quite so outwardly Jewish as Pillup is.


Frankly, I don't think we're going to know the answer until later today as to how all of this broke down. But in a race that's really, really close, this group actually has the potential to swing it one way or the other.


It's pretty interesting. The people in the middle, had it not been for October seventh, perhaps they would have just voted for the Democrat because that's maybe how they tended to vote. But now October seventh has made this chemical reaction, and it's a little bit of a wild card. We don't know what's going to happen.


Right. This is one of these issues that I think is being watched by political strategists all over the country who are wondering, okay, what could this mean potentially in other districts? Have the foundations of American politics been shaken so hard that Republicans can drive a wedge between Jewish voters and Democrats, and that could potentially have a real impact across the country. As if that wasn't enough, remember, this district is going to offer us a second test case on something that is arguably even a bigger issue right now, and that's immigration.


We'll be right back. So, nick, tell me about how immigration is shaping this race.


Let me start by just zooming out for a second. Since the pandemic, there has been an incredible buildup of people from Venezuela, Latin America, other countries trying to cross the Southern border. It's become a big issue in Washington right now. Last week, we saw President Biden and Congress really tangling over a potential border deal, and it's become one of the biggest issues for the 2024 campaign as well. Former President Trump has made clear that this is the issue that he wants to run on, one of the ones that he really thinks he can beat President Biden up on. On a national level, this issue is everywhere at the moment. But there's an unusual resonance, I think, here in New York and in this district in particular as well. Now, I've been on the show before talking about the migrant crisis here in New York. All those people streaming over the Southern border, 170,000 of them and counting, have come here to New York City. It's been a huge quandry for the city and for the state and the Democrats who run New York. It's been expensive. The mayor has talked about having to slash the budget.


All of that is playing out in this district. There's actually a migrant shelter that the city has erected that sits squarely in the Congressional district. A lot of voters in it are commuting into the city all the time and maybe are seeing people lined up outside of hotels. If nothing else, they're reading all kinds of daily headlines. Just last week, the police commissioner of New York was talking about a migrant crime wave in New York City, all of which is suggesting Chaos, and chaos under Democrats watch, both in Washington and in New York.


Okay, so where do we see this play out on the campaign?


This issue starts to show up in polls very early in this race as a top priority of voters. But I think the moment that it really crystallized on the campaign trail, that this thing, that immigration is going to be the center of this campaign, was a couple of weeks ago when Mazy Pillup, the Republican candidate, decided to have her first major press conference of the campaign outside that migrant shelter in Queens.


My name is Mazy Pillup. I'm a legal immigrant and a candidate for Congress.


She shows up. She introduces herself as a legal immigrant before she even said she's the Republican candidate for Congress.


The third Congressional district residents worry about our border crisis.


And talked about basically how bad things have gotten on Democrats. What?


She says, He created this problem.


He's been for sanctuary cities in the past. The crisis that we have here right now, it's their fault, and I'm the one that'll make it better.


She's saying, I came here the right way, legally, these people didn't, and all of this is happening under Democrats.


Exactly. This looks like a typical Republican issue. It's the things that Republicans are doing all over the country right now. But the really The wild thing that happens is Swazi finds out that this is going to happen, and he gets in his car and drives to the migrant shelter himself. Oh, wow. And sets up a press conference right next to her. Oh, my gosh. So that when she wraps up, he steps up to the microphone and says, As we saw in the press conference that my opponent was here a few minutes ago.


She didn't give any solutions. She recounted why it's a problem. We all know it's a problem. Some of us have been talking about it for decades.


Hi, I'm the Democrat in this race, and I agree this is a total problem for this district.


She need to solve it problem. Complicated problem is compromise. You got to get both sides to cut a deal. That's the only way you can solve these problems.


But here's how I would deal with it. I want to find a bipartisan solution, and my opponent isn't going to do that.


So he basically wants to show everybody he's no less tough on the issue than she is. He's like, Okay, I see your press conference. I'll raise you mine. But what's he really doing here?


Yeah, it's a striking moment because I think that we are used to in the political world, thinking of immigration as an issue that Republicans attack on, and Democrats either stay quiet or try to ignore it. Here you have the Democratic candidate really diving headfirst into an issue that polls show voters are blaming his party for. In some ways, this is really typical for somebody like Tom Swasi, who's a centrist who likes to buck his party. But I think it also reflects that he learned an important lesson from 2022 when Republicans performed much better here in New York than they did in the rest of the country. They did it in part by really speaking to and channeling fears about rising crime in New York. Democrats, by their own admission, didn't take it seriously enough, and they ceded it to Republicans. Swazy saw that, and his takeaway was, this can't be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. This is an issue that voters care about and that they're talking about. If I don't dive into it and show them that I'm taking it seriously and trying to solve it, well, then yeah, I am going to be politically washed out with President Biden and other Democrats who are getting the blame.


He's really trying to both separate himself from his party here in an important way and dive into an issue that we've seen Democrats pretty uncomfortable grappling with.


Which in a way is a pretty bad sign for national-level Democrats, including Biden heading into November. Like that a Democrat in a swing district of a blue state is running away from his own party's position on immigration. But that's also a pretty tricky needle for him to thread.


Yeah, no doubt, especially in a special election where, by the way, candidates usually win and lose based on their ability to turn out their most loyal voters. Normally, you're not reaching across the aisle. But I think that Swazi is finding himself having to do this is emblematic of just how bad this issue is for Democrats and how bad their brand has become in a place like the suburbs of New York City. Remember, Biden won this district pretty easily four years ago. But now in the latest polling in this race, and I'm talking to voters out in the field, it's quite clear that Biden's numbers have dropped precipitously. In fact, he's trailing Donald Trump in head to heads here in the suburbs. A large part of that has to do with immigration. Voters seem to be very exercised about the sense of this issue being out of control, and Democrats, the ones that they put in power, not doing enough about it. If Pillip is trying to make this race into basically a referendum on President Biden and the Democratic Party vis-a-vis immigration, what Swazi is trying to do is make it a battle between Tom Swazi, the Democrat, and Mazy Pillip, the Republican, over who's got the better idea to help solve this problem.


He's saying, Yeah, I agree with you that we have a problem, but let's argue about the way to fix it and get voters to really focus in on that. In that area, he may have gotten some help last week.


You're referring to the deal that the Republicans actually wanted and then bailed on at the last minute, this deal in the Senate immigration.


That's right. Swazi is able to go out and say, Look, here's a bipartisan solution. The Democrats agreed to give Republicans Americans, almost everything that they wanted. There's some money for the wall. There's money to speed up and change the asylum process. We can increase deportations. This is the thing that's going to help us solve the problem in the country. This is the thing that I'd support. So when this Republican opponent comes out and trashes it and says, This is a legalization of the invasion that we're seeing in the border, Swazi moves really quickly to say, Okay, you remember my Republican was telling you this was a really big problem. Now, she seems to be putting politics over solving that policy problem because President Trump and her party would rather not give President Biden the victory.


Basically saying, look, this is a pretty cynical political move. They're using it for their own political gain instead of actually trying to fix the problem.




How does Pillip respond to that?


Pillip responds by basically doubling down and saying, why should we trust you on the solution when you arguably helped create this problem in the first place? This is where Swazi runs into some trouble with that long record of his. It turns out when you've been in politics for 30 years, you accumulate a record that's pretty easy to go in and pluck things out of to support an argument like this. National Republicans and the Pillip campaign have been airing millions of dollars of ads that showed he voted with Biden 100% of the time when he was still in Congress. So it really connects him to the President on all kinds of issues. And then there's this one ad in particular that has been running over and over and over again. Illegal immigrants arriving by the busload. Why? Because Tom Swazy repeatedly weakened America's borders. That includes a clip of Swazy during his ill-fated run for governor a couple of years ago.


When I was county executive in Nassau County, I kicked ICE out of Nassau County.


Bragging on a debate stage about how he kicked ICE, that is, immigration and customs enforcement, out of Nassau County when he was county executive.


Essentially a pro-immigration stance.


Right. That's how it looks. In Congress, he'll make it worse. Congressional Leadership Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising. Now, Swazi has explained he had good reason. The ICE officers pulled guns on Nassau County police officers. But when you really get under the data and talk to strategists that are working on this race, that ad has taken a real bite out of Swazi's image and seems to be helping Pillup undermine voters' trust in his ability to solve the problem. We've also seen in polls that voters who care the most about the border, and that's a plurality of voters, as said, trust Pillup more than they trust Swazi.


Okay, so given all of this, of course, we're not going to know the answer until tonight when we get the election results. But nick, just casting a little bit ahead here, say the Republican wins, say Pillup wins. What should Republicans take away from that? What's the lesson there?


Republicans took a big hit last week for pulling out of that bipartisan immigration deal that they themselves demanded and helped negotiate. But they did it for a reason, arguably. They did it because it is a very good political issue for them, and they want to run their 2024 campaigns on it. If they end up being successful in this race, which is really the very first test of that strategy, I think it may tell them that that was worth it, at least politically, and that this is the path that they ought to continue going down, both as they run against President Biden, but also in Senate and House races all over the country where things are close, and voters may be similarly disposed to blame the Democrats for it. On the other hand, if Mazy Pillip loses and Swazi wins, while I don't think that we'll see Republicans completely abandon immigration as an issue by any means, I think they're going to have to take a hard look at the suite of issues that they're running on and whether that alone is enough to get candidates across the finish line in these tough districts.


nick, what about the Democrat? I mean, what if Swazi wins? What would that tell Democrats?


Swazi, if he can win, would essentially be writing a playbook for Democrats across the country. I think it would go something like this, Keep pounding your Republican opponent on abortion and Trump and issues like that. But you can't ignore the issues that Republicans really like either. You got to dive in in the mud and start wrestling with them. If you can separate yourself from President Biden a little bit along the way, or you can otherwise show your willing to push against party orthodoxy, then voters might just reward you for that. They might look at you and say, Okay, this is the politician who might be able to help solve problems for us. Let's give him a shot. On the other hand, if having done all of that, a candidate like Tom Swasi, who entered this race well-known and well-liked, he had a Democratic registration advantage and a lot more money than his Republican opponent, can't pull this out. I think that's going to be a very potent warning sign for President Biden and his party that this fall is going to be one heck of a fight.


nick, thank you.


My pleasure, Sabrina.


In a troubling sign for turnout in Tuesday's special election, there is heavy snow in the New York Metro area. A significant storm could create even greater uncertainty in a contest whose outcome is likely be decided by a small margin.


We'll be right back.


Here's what else you should know today. On Monday, Israel's military said it had conducted a wave of attacks on the Southern Gaza City of Rafa to provide cover for soldiers undertaking a hostage rescue mission there. Israeli Special Forces raided a building there before dawn, freeing two hostages held by Hamas. The Gazan Health Ministry said at least 67 Palestinians had been killed. The Ministry's figures do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. The operation was met with elation in Israel and was a major boost for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for Palestinians, it carried a sense of foreboding that a broader Israeli operation to capture the city was beginning. Netanyahu has ordered the military to draw up plans to evacuate civilians from Rafeh, but aid groups say there is no place left for them to go. And a judge in Atlanta said that he would move ahead with a hearing later this week, delving into a romantic relationship between the two prosecutors who are leading an election interference case against Donald Trump and his allies. The revelations about the relationship have created turmoil around the case, one of several against Trump involving the in the election and his alleged efforts to subvert it.


The defense is trying to get the two prosecutors, Fawnie Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, and Nathan Wade, whom she hired to run the case, disqualified. Our arguing that the relationship gives the appearance of impropriety and would lead to an unfair prosecution. Today's episode was produced by Muj Zady, Eric Krupke, Summer Tamad, and Stella Tan. It was edited by Marc George with help from Rachel Quester. Contains original music by Marion Lozano and Ron Niemastow, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDYRLE. That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. Seeverny-cee. See you tomorrow.