Hochul, backing Tom Suozzi, calls race for Santos’ seat her ‘top priority’

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Gov. Hochul on Friday offered her one-time bitter rival Tom Suozzi a full-throated endorsement in his high-stakes special election race for the Long Island House seat vacated by George Santos.

On the eve of the start of early voting, Hochul, a centrist Democrat, said it was her “top priority” to help Suozzi win the seat for the Democratic Party, which is aiming to cut the Republican Party’s advantage in the House to two seats.

“I’ve been working very closely with Tom Suozzi. I believe that he is the best person to represent that district,” Hochul told reporters at a prosecutors’ conference in Midtown. “We want to win this seat.”

Hochul, who beat Suozzi in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor, described her former foe as a proven commodity and cast doubt on the qualifications of his Republican opponent, Mazi Melesa Pilip.

Suozzi represented the Long Island district for three terms before giving up his seat to run for governor, challenging Hochul and aggravating her by calling her an “interim governor.” He is now running hard to retake the congressional seat, presenting himself as a straightforward problem-solver and accusing Pilip of trying to mislead voters about her positions.

Though public polling of the race has been sparse, experts said they believe the contest is headed for a photo finish. The national leadership of both parties have been laser-focused on the outcome in the district, which includes swaths of Long Island and a sliver of Queens.

Santos won the seat by nearly 8 points in 2022. Suozzi led Pilip by 3 points in an Emerson College survey released last month. Election Day is Feb. 13

“Anyone who thought this race won’t be incredibly competitive and incredibly close was fooling themselves,” said Alyssa Cass, a Democratic political strategist.

Suozzi, who visited Brooklyn for a fundraiser Thursday night, has handily out-raised the 44-year-old Pilip, according to federal campaign finance disclosures. Suozzi’s campaign had a 2.2 million war chest at the end of January, while Pilip’s had about $630,000 on hand, according to the records.

But recent events could be cutting to Pilip’s advantage: A caught-on-video attack on cops in Manhattan carried out by migrants, according to authorities, may offer the Republican a powerful talking point in the race’s final days. A debate is scheduled for Thursday.

Pilip has sought to tie Suozzi to the immigration crisis gripping Democratic-run New York. Her campaign has branded him “Sanctuary Suozzi,” and presented him as an extension of President Biden, who has been blamed by Democrats and Republicans alike for the asylum seeker crisis.

“Joe Biden and Tom Suozzi created the migrant crisis by opening our borders and funding sanctuary cities,” Pilip asserted in a statement last week. “They caused runaway inflation. A vote for Tom Suozzi is a vote for Joe Biden’s disastrous agenda.”

Suozzi, 61, has in turn cast Pilip, a registered Democrat who serves in the Nassau County Legislature, as an unknown and untrustworthy political trickster. He has claimed Pilip is trying to confuse voters about her gun safety stances, which he has compared to the far-right positions of Santos.

On Friday, Hochul suggested that Pilip’s campaign carries echoes of Santos’ 2022 bid. In that run, Santos, a conservative Republican, conjured a fictional résumé for himself, misleading voters about his education, professional experience, family history and property ownership.

Hochul said “there are way too many unanswered questions” about Pilip. “It feels very much like what we went through with George Santos,” the governor added.

Santos, indicted on fraud charges, was expelled from Congress in December. (He pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.)

In a recent interview with Newsday, Pilip declined to say whom she voted for in the 2020 presidential election or to provide her position on Roe v. Wade, the Long Island newspaper reported. And her campaign has declined to clarify her positions on gun control.

On Friday, she met with the hard-right Republican House Speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, at a fundraiser at King Umberto, a pizzeria in Elmont, according to her campaign spokesman. The spokesman, Brian Devine, said the local Republican Party appreciates Johnson’s support.

The intervention by the speaker underscored how the race has become a national proxy battle.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said the race carried symbolic weight beyond the single congressional seat, with Republicans seeing it as an indicator of whether they can keep the House in November. And it is a key test for Hochul and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, the Democratic House minority leader, Sheinkopf added.

“What’s at stake here?” he said. “Losing this seat would be a tremendous setback perceptually for Hakeem Jeffries, for Kathy Hochul and for the Democrats generally in the state.”