Ethiopian-Israeli-American falls short in securing congressional seat

There was a noticeable contingent of visibly Orthodox Jews showing support for Pilip.

By Mike Wagenheim, JNS

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

In a special congressional election to fill the vacated seat of disgraced Republican George Santos, Ethiopian-born Israeli-American Mazi Pilip, running as a Republican, lost on Tuesday to three-term congressman Tom Suozzi, as Democrats picked up a critical House seat in New York’s 3rd congressional district.

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

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

There was a noticeable contingent of visibly Orthodox Jews and those sporting Israel gear and paraphernalia gathered Tuesday waiting for the election returns.

The race, won by Suozzi by a larger-than-expected margin, is looked at by many as a bellwether of November’s general election. U.S. President Joe Biden had won the district by eight points in 2020 before Republicans flipped it in 2022 amidst a red wave largely confined to the New York suburbs.

It also has immediate consequences, as Suozzi will eat into the narrow House Republican majority.

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, who most recently launched a failed gubernatorial challenge against New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat.

Concerns over antisemitism

Pilip, an Orthodox Jewish mother of seven who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child during 1991’s famed Operation Solomon, 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 chain in public.

But the election revolved around national issues, with border security and abortion at the top of the list. Pilip attempted to paint Suozzi as in lockstep with Biden and soft on illegal immigration, while Suozzi countered with a narrative of 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 was noticeable to observers, and she was largely shielded on the campaign trail from big events and difficult questions. She was questioned heavily about her registration as a Democrat, which she still carries.

Rep. Nick LaLota, a Republican first-term U.S. House member 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, who also rode 2022’s local Republican wave 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 [Nassau] County legislature has been in place, has been in Democratic hands.”

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

But, a congressional race that drew $15 million of outside spending is distinctly different from a county legislature seat, and Pilip was outraised. She also had a short campaign through which to catch up with Suozzi on name recognition.

The weather may have played a factor as well. 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, with Republican voters much more inclined to vote on Election Day than Democrats rather than take advantage of early voting.

Stink of the Santos saga

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. And 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. Trump took to social media following Pilip’s concession, calling her 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 as Pilip as a pro-Israel vote.

Suozzi will need to defend his seat again in November, with the special election held to fill out the remainder of Santos’s term. Republicans gave no early clues on Tuesday as to whether Pilip would get a second chance or if they will look elsewhere.