February 13, 2024 - 7:30pm

The special election to replace Republican former Congressman George Santos is underway in New York with polls closing tonight, and it could serve as a bellwether for November’s presidential race.

Much like the race between Biden and Trump, the special election is extremely close and hinges on two issues of national importance: abortion and immigration. The candidates’ performance will give insight into the extent to which growing concerns about immigration will chip away at Democrats’ advantage in the post-Roe landscape.

New York is following the same trends as the nation as a whole: immigration is becoming a more important issue to voters, and voters are more concerned about illegal immigration. In the race to replace Santos, Democrat Tom Suozzi, who has held the seat three times, is running against Republican Mazi Pilip, a county legislator, with both tacking to the Right on immigration.

Pilip is a hardliner on immigration, and her attack ads have focused heavily on the issue. Suozzi, meanwhile, has endorsed immigration reforms that involve expedited deportations, but he’s still taking heat due to the perceived weakness of Democrats on the issue.

Abortion has historically ranked low among the issues American voters consider when choosing a candidate, but the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 has been credited with a sizeable advantage for Democrats, who have made legal abortion a centrepiece of their campaigns. Pilip, who supports legal abortion despite her personal opposition to the practice, is likely to be hurt on the issue due to her party affiliation. This much became clear during her first debate with Suozzi, who repeatedly asked Pilip whether she accepts the pro-choice label. She refused to directly answer, instead saying that she is “pro-life” but believes “every woman should have the choice to make that decision.” 

Republicans, of course, want the race in New York and the presidential election to be a referendum on immigration, while Democrats want to focus on abortion. Across the country, the Biden campaign is betting on the abortion issue, including with major ad buys, which it hopes will energise the base and appeal to moderates. The success of a pro-abortion ballot measure in Ohio and the victories of pro-abortion Democratic candidates in Virginia and Kentucky lend some credibility to this strategy. 

Meanwhile, immigration has soared in importance and is currently second only to economic problems; just 8% viewed it as their top issue in July, compared to 20% in January. In swing states, voters trust Trump over Biden on immigration by 52 vs. 30%, with Trump’s margin rising five points since December. 

The still-fresh memory of the Santos spectacle, in which it was discovered that the politician had fabricated much of his resumé and personal history, and heavy snow affecting day-of turnout are both expected to hurt Republicans. This could diminish the value of the results as a bellwether for November. Nonetheless, the campaigns have already lent valuable insights about the changing political climate as we head towards the next presidential election. 

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.