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Pilip loses special election for former George Santos congressional seat in NY

The Republican, a former IDF soldier who is an Ethiopian-born Israeli-American, lost by about eight points to Tom Suozzi.

Mazi Pilip concedes the special congressional election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District to Tom Suozzi on Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.
Mazi Pilip concedes the special congressional election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District to Tom Suozzi on Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

A former gunsmith for the IDF paratroopers won’t be parachuting into Washington.

Mazi Pilip, an Ethiopian-born, Israeli American running as a Republican, lost a special congressional election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District on Tuesday to three-term congressman Tom Suozzi. With some 93.4% of votes counted, Suozzi is leading by neary eight points.

Democrats picked up a critical seat, which disgraced Republican George Santos vacated, after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expel him on Dec. 1.

“We are fighters,” Pilip said in a concession speech, 75 minutes after polls closed. “Yes, we lost, but it doesn’t mean we end here.”

Surrounded by Republican officials, officeholders and operatives, Pilip spoke to those assembled at an event center in East Meadow, N.Y. on Long Island for about a minute. She did not take questions from the media.

A noticeable contingent of visibly-Orthodox Jews and those sporting Israeli gear and paraphernalia gathered on Tuesday to wait for the election returns.

Suozzi won the reace by a larger margin than many had predicted, and many see the race as a bellwether of November’s presidential election. Joe Biden won the district by eight points in 2020, before Republicans flipped it in 2022, amid a red wave largely confined to N.Y. suburbs.

Souzzi’s victory also has immediate national consequences, eating into the narrow Republican majority in the House.

The district, covering parts of Nassau County and Queens, pitted Pilip, a second-term Nassau County legislator and relative novice, against Suozzi, a seasoned Washington veteran and former Nassau County executive. Most recently, Souzzi had launched a failed gubernatorial challenge against New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat.

Concerns over antisemitism

An Orthodox Jewish mother of seven, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child during 1991’s famed “Operation Solomon,” Pilip told JNS during the campaign that her shift into politics was precipitated by concerns over antisemitism and whether her son was safe wearing a Star of David necklace in public.

But the election revolved around national issues, with border security and abortion atop the list.

Mazi Pilip Family
Mazi Pilip, her husband, Adalbert Pilip, and their seven children. Credit: Official website of Mazi Melesa Pilip for Congress.

Pilip sought to paint Suozzi as in lockstep with Biden and soft on illegal immigration,. Suozzi countered by portraying himself as a middle-of-the-road dealmaker, who supported tougher border security measures.

He also challenged Pilip’s stance on abortion, which Pilip eventually clarified as personally pro-life but broadly pro-choice for others.

Pilip’s struggle to define herself drew attention, and she or her advisers largely shielded her on the campaign trail from big events and tough questions. She was questioned heavily about her registration as a Democrat, which she still carries.

Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.), a first-term congressman from New York’s 1st Congressional District, insisted Pilip did not spend the campaign on the defense.

“She played a very good game of offense, campaigning on the issues that matter: holding Joe Biden accountable, standing with Israel and holding the rest of this administration accountable,” LaLota told JNS. “She’s strong on public safety. She rebuked things like sanctuary policies and shelter laws that New York City has lost its mind on.”

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y), who also rode the local Republican wave in 2022 into the House out of New York’s 4th Congressional District, told JNS that Pilip “was out there with the community.”

“She represents a district that, for almost the entire time that the county legislature has been in place, has been in Democratic hands,” he said, of Nassau County.

Esposito said Pilip was able to flip the county seat “by building coalitions and having respect across the board—Democrats, Republicans, independents, conservatives.”

But a congressional race that drew about $17.5 million of outside spending, per Federal Election Commission data, is distinctly different from a county legislature seat. Suozzi outraised Pilip $4.5 million to $1.3 million, per the most recent FEC data, which goes until Jan. 24. (Roll Call reported that Souzzi benefitted from $13.1 million and Pilip from $8 million, of a total of $21.1 million in outside spending.)

She also had a short campaign to try and catch up with an opponent with area-wide name recognition.

The weather may have played a factor. New York and its suburbs saw their first significant snow in two years, making a trip to the polls challenging through the mid-afternoon.

Both campaigns offered rides to the voting booths, and the top House Republican super PAC hired plow companies to remove snow in key areas. Republican voters are reportedly much more inclined to vote on Election Day than are Democrats, who are likelier to take advantage of early voting.

Mazi Pilip
Signs for Mazi Pilip at an event center in East Meadow, N.Y. on Long Island on Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

The Santos stink

There was also the leftover stink of the Santos saga. The former congressman, now facing criminal charges, was expelled from Congress in December after several scandals brought on by his fabrications about nearly every aspect of his life, including his claimed Jewish background and relation to Holocaust survivors.

But Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, told JNS that Santos “was a complete non-factor.”

“People are concerned about issues that are important to them,” he said. “George Santos is definitely not important to anybody in the 3rd Congressional District.”

LaLota said he had no regrets about Santos’s expulsion, which ultimately led to the seat flipping back to Democrats. The charge for Santos’s ouster was led by fellow New York Republicans.

“You have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences,” LaLota told JNS.

Both candidates deliberately untethered themselves from the top of the ticket, with both Biden and former President Donald Trump unpopular in the district. Only in the final days of the campaign did Pilip begin to praise Trump.

The Republican presidential frontrunner did not let the slight go unchallenged. After Pilip conceded, Trump wrote on social media that she was a “very foolish woman” for distancing herself from him.

Though Suozzi made it a point during the campaign to distribute press releases showing support for Israel in its war against Hamas, it is doubtful he will be as reliable a pro-Israel vote as Pilip would be.

Suozzi will need to defend his seat again in November. Republicans gave no early clues on Tuesday as to whether Pilip would get a second chance or if they will look elsewhere.

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