In the victory in New York, Democrats sense a turn on immigration and border policy

Tuesday’s victory in New York’s special election gave Democrats renewed optimism that the party may have found some of the key ingredients to neutralizing immigration and the border as policy issues, which party officials privately see as among their deepest areas of vulnerability in 2024.

The victory in the House race for former and now future Rep. Tom Suozzi — a Democrat hailed by Republicans as “Sanctuary Suozzi” — came in a corner of the country, Long Island, that has been increasingly hostile to Democrats over the past two years. And Mr. Suozzi won after frontally and repeatedly addressing a topic that his party has sometimes tried to shy away from.

With border crossings rising to record highs in recent months and more than 170,000 migrants arriving in New York City, Republicans hoped to use immigration to paint Mr. Suozzi as unacceptable outside the mainstream. A leading GOP super PAC spent roughly $3 million on two television ads that said Mr. Suozzi “rolled out the red carpet for illegal immigrants.”

But in the final 10 days of the race, an analysis by AdImpact, a media monitoring firm, showed that Democrats actually aired more ads on immigration than Republicans, while Mr. Suozzi’s campaign aired clips of his appearance on Fox News in which he was introduced as “one of the Democrats” who supports ICE, the immigration enforcement agency.

Mr. Suozzi’s victory came just days after congressional Republicans torpedoed bipartisan legislation on Capitol Hill that would have cracked down on illegal migration across the Mexican border. Donald J. Trump, the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, lobbied aggressively against the bill, insisting its passage would help Democrats as he hoped to preserve the border crisis as a bludgeon with which to hit President Biden this fall.

The failure of that bipartisan deal has not featured prominently in advertising in this House race. But Mr. Suozzi spoke about it as he took some unusually hard lines for a Democrat, including calls to temporarily closed the border and deport migrants who attack the police.

Other Democrats sought to distance themselves from the White House on the issue, most notably New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Last fall, Gov. JB Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat whose state will host the Democratic National Convention this summer, wrote that the influx of migrants was becoming “unsustainable” as Republican governors bused migrants to Democratic cities and states.

Democratic leaders on Wednesday said they believed Suozzi’s victory after Republicans killed a bipartisan border security package was an important moment that signaled that Republicans bear at least some of the blame for border problems.

“Now we’ve made the border an issue where Democrats are on the front foot, whereas before all of this we were on the back foot,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said in an interview Wednesday. “Trump almost handed the issue to us on a silver platter when he said he didn’t want to do it for political purposes after saying the border was an emergency.”

Mr. Schumer called New York’s third congressional district, which covers parts of Queens and Nassau County, one of 20 districts in the United States where border issues are most prominent, making the loss even more troubling for the Republican Party.

It’s not that most Democrats think the border is suddenly a winning issue for them, it’s that they could fight for a larger political deadlock while winning over voters on issues like abortion.

“It’s turned from a negative to a positive issue,” Mr. Schumer said of the border issue for Democrats, adding, “Not totally positive, but overall positive.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, downplayed the special election, saying Mr. Suozzi “sounded like a Republican” on immigration and that his success could not be repeated.

“It in no way speaks to what will happen in the fall,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

But overall, Democrats felt bullish.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, was his party’s lead negotiator on the collapsed border package. He wrote in a memo to his colleagues on Wednesday that the package’s defeat was a “unique, unprecedented opening for Democrats to launch an offensive on border security” and that the extraordinary election result was “evidence” that the political climate is changing.

“The politics of the border are changing before our eyes,” Mr. Murphy wrote.

Regardless of the long-term lessons of the special election, the Democratic victory immediately tightened the already tenuous Republican grip on the House, making governance more difficult in the coming months and the task of the party holding the chamber in the fall.

After Mr. Suozzi is sworn in, Republicans will hold 219 seats and Democrats 213.

Mr. Suozzi, however, has distanced himself from the White House at times in the race, questioning Mr. Biden as the party’s nominee in television interview on the eve of the election when he said that “the bottom line is that he is old” and that he would “probably” support the president “if he ends up being the Democratic candidate”.

For his part, Mr Trump blamed Long Island Republican candidate Mazie Phillips for not embracing him more fully, calling her a “fool” for trying to “jump the fence”.

Special elections are often over-interpreted for their importance, and this particular election was particularly, well, special.

The opening of Congress came only because of the ouster of a scandal-plagued Republican, former Rep. George Santos, who drew national attention for his fairy tales and eventual federal indictment. Democrats had ready-made recruits for the short special election timeline in Mr. Suozzi, who represented the region for years before running unsuccessfully for governor and had an established centrist reputation.

Democrats also outnumbered Republicans roughly two to one. The race was held in the district that Mr. Biden carried by about the same margin as Mr. Suozzi, who seemed on pace to win, even though the region has been moving to the right since 2020.

“The result last night is not something that I think the Democrats should celebrate too much,” said Mr. Johnson, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

In a sign of the stakes and the outcome and how it is interpreted politically, top officials from both parties wrote dueling memos on Wednesday describing how immigration played out.

The National Republican Congressional Committee argued that its immigration ad “moved the numbers,” even in a loss, releasing some private polling data, including that 45 percent of voters in the committee’s final poll saw immigration as a top issue.

“Imagine what we would do to any candidate without the institutional advantages that Suozzi brought to the race,” the NRCC memo said.

The main Democratic super PAC in the race, House Majority PAC, wrote in its memo that about 20 percent of the group’s paid communications — television spots, mailers, digital ads — mentioned immigration (abortion still appeared almost twice as often). . The memo likened the issue to the party’s vulnerability in 2022 to the economy and inflation, and argued that it was imperative that candidates tackled those issues head-on.

The Democrats tried to Mr. Suozzi has been brought up on immigration from the start, and the House Majority PAC launched a digital ad in early January promoting Mr. Suozzi’s record on four issues that Republicans will typically focus on: border security, the migrant crisis, support for local police and the crime rate.

“The messages are on our ground – crime and border security!” wrote Parker Hamilton Poling, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked on House races, said in January, “It’s an uphill battle to convince voters that Dems will do better on those issues.”

But Mr. Suozzi and his allies have been consistent on immigration, which party strategists have called a plan for the future.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began a low-key and token online ad campaign Wednesday in Texas and Florida, where the two Republican candidates are up for re-election, saying Republicans are the ones who “won’t secure the border” and won’t “crack down on the fentanyl trade.”

JB Poersch, chairman of the largest Democratic super PAC involved in Senate races, said Wednesday after winning the special election that immigration will be an important part of the advertising strategy in key battlegrounds this fall.

“Republicans have made the fatal mistake of capitulating to Trump’s calculus that exploiting the border as a campaign issue is more important than solving the problem,” Mr. Poersch said. “Democrats can and will advance their efforts to resolve this crisis despite the political cowardice of Republicans.”

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