Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip focus on Jewish outreach as special election nears 

The Long Island-based district has one of the largest Jewish constituencies in the country

With early voting now underway in the special House election to replace former Rep. George Santos (R-NY), the two candidates and their allies are boosting efforts to mobilize Jewish voters who represent a crucial coalition that could help decide the outcome of what is expected to be a close race.

While much of the messaging — and outside spending — has turned on border security and abortion rights in advance of the Feb. 13 election between Mazi Pilip and former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), the ongoing Israel-Hamas war as well as rising antisemitism have also been pivotal factors in the race for one of the most heavily Jewish districts in the country, covering parts of Nassau County and Queens.

In a tight race, the Jewish community, at an estimated 11% of the electorate, could “make or break the election,” said Sam Markstein, the national political director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is backing Pilip, a county legislator and Israeli Defense Forces veteran born in Ethiopia. “This group is going to be a decisive bloc and we have been spending weeks reaching out to these voters,” he told Jewish Insider on Friday.

The RJC, which has raised $43,000 for Pilip while circulating mailers touting her pro-Israel record and opposition to antisemitism, is among several Jewish and pro-Israel groups from both parties now actively engaged in the consequential special election, which will help determine the balance of power in the House.

Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which has invested in print and digital ads as well as phone banking to support Suozzi’s campaign, called the race a “bellwether for November” that she expects will demonstrate “the power of the Jewish vote,” given its “relatively high turnout numbers.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) debates in the race for governor at the studios of WNBC4-TV June 16, 2022 in New York City.

Even as the activity from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations pales in comparison to the millions spent by national party-aligned groups, which have flooded the district with TV ads, the outreach to Jewish voters underscores the extent to which both campaigns see the community as key to winning the seat next week.

On paper, both candidates are aligned on Middle East policy, vocally opposing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel as well as calls for a cease-fire. But the political valence of the conflict in Gaza has scrambled partisan affiliations in the district, where voters have voiced frustration with the Democratic Party in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks.

One GOP operative in Nassau County with ties to Pilip’s campaign speculated that a potentially significant percentage of Reform voters, who typically back Democrats by an overwhelming margin, could gravitate to Pilip’s campaign due to growing anxieties over the party’s far-left flank.

The district is also home to a large population of Orthodox voters, including Persian Jews, who traditionally lean to the right, and are mobilizing to show up for Pilip.

Though President Joe Biden has continued to affirm his support for Israel in its war to eliminate Hamas, the anti-Israel rhetoric from far-left House members has “very much shaped this race,” said Brian Devine, a spokesperson for Pilip’s campaign. 

“While Mr. Suozzi seems to have a great deal of support for Israel in his statements,” Devine added, some members of Suozzi’s party, he alleged, have helped fuel an uptick in antisemitism that Pilip is “better positioned” to counter in Congress.

In a statement to JI on Sunday, Pilip, 44, voiced confidence that Jewish voters “will boast an impressive turnout” in the election because “there is so much at stake,” while vowing that she will “stand up to the Squad,” whose members have been among the most outspoken critics of Israel in the House.

“I am a force to stop Jew hate, and this election is a call to action for the Jewish community,” said Pilip, an Orthodox Jew, who was airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel in 1991 before settling in New York nearly 20 years ago. “The Jewish community is my extended family, and it has helped to shape my life, my faith and my values.”

In recent weeks, Pilip, who in 2021 flipped a Democratic-held seat in the county legislature, has met with Jewish voters at challah bakes and coffee klatches while participating in youth fundraising efforts for the IDF, where she served as a gunsmith in a paratroopers unit. Pilip has also attended Shabbat services and spoken with Jewish families in the district who are concerned about rising antisemitism, one of her top issues as a local official.

Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip arrives for a press conference at American Legion Post 1066 on December 15, 2023 in Massapequa, New York.
Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip arrives for a press conference at American Legion Post 1066 on December 15, 2023 in Massapequa, New York.

While both candidates appeared together at a rally to show support for a Long Island man held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, their Jewish outreach efforts have otherwise operated independently.

For his part, Suozzi, 61, has distributed mailers and postcards targeting Jewish voters in the district, which he represented for three terms before a failed gubernatorial bid last cycle. He has also touted his “unequivocal” support for Israel — as well as an endorsement from a local Jewish newspaper —  in a digital ad that has run on streaming services.

His campaign, meanwhile, has sought input from a recently created Jewish advisory committee including a former American Jewish Committee leader, an AIPAC national board member and a co-chair of Democratic Majority for Israel, whose political arm has been placing print ads calling Suozzi “a proven pro-Israel voice and vote in Congress.”

Even as Pilip has claimed that her opponent has enabled the Squad, Suozzi has countered that he has long been willing to speak out against members of his own party who have been strident critics of Israel — a practice that he has continued to uphold in his comeback campaign.   

As the race enters its final stretch, Suozzi indicated that Jewish and pro-Israel voters are recognizing those efforts, despite Pilip’s counter-messaging.

“My proven pro-Israel record in Congress, unequivocal commitment to the Jewish community and willingness to take on far-left members of my own party has resonated strongly in the district,” he said in a statement to JI on Sunday. “Pro-Israel voters recognize that we need more staunchly pro-Israel Democrats if we are to maintain strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

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