In high-stakes New York House race, Biden and Trump are not welcome

In high-stakes New York House race, Biden and Trump are not welcome

NEW YORK – The race to replace former Rep. George Santos in suburban Long Island appears to be a harbinger of the national mood in a presidential election year.

But the two main characters in the nation’s political story are too unpopular to set foot in the district.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have avoided New York’s 3rd Congressional District on Long Island — a sign of voters’ deep displeasure, which has been registered in public polls. Democrat Tom Suozzi has decided it would be better for Biden to stay away, and Republican nominee Mazi Pilip spent much of the race brushing off Trump before welcoming his help in the final stretch.

Suozzi went as far as piling on Biden’s chief vulnerability in a televised interview Monday, acknowledging the president’s advanced age — a problem exacerbated last week by special counsel Robert Hur’s report describing him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

“The bottom line is, he’s old,” Suozzi told FOX 5 New York. “I mean, he’s 81 years old.” He then hedged on whether Biden would be the Democratic nominee after the party’s August convention in Chicago.

And Trump has hardly gotten star treatment from Pilip, who initially skated cautiously around him and has only moved closer to aligning herself with her party’s likely nominee in recent days.

Pilip recently told FOX 5 she didn’t think Trump, who is 77, is too old to run. “I think mentally, he’s stable, he’s healthy and he served the American people as a president,” she added. “He did great things for our country.”

The strategic decision by the two candidates in the nail-biter race underscores the dissatisfaction Americans have with the elderly men likely to capture the two major party nominations this year. Both have high negatives and intractable problems for swing voters like those going to the polls on Tuesday: Biden would be 86 when his term ends and has been pilloried by the right and far left for his handling of the southern border crisis. Trump, meanwhile, continues to deny he lost the election in 2020 and is facing 91 felony charges.

“Biden and Trump are proxies for a range of issues and those issues in turn are proxies for Biden and Trump,” Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said. “If you think Biden is a liability for your opponent, then you link Suozzi to the president and the border policies. If you think that Trump is a liability for your opponent on abortion, then you link your opponent to the former president. That sometimes takes a deft touch.”

A registered Democrat, Pilip did not disclose voting for Trump in 2020 until last week in an interview with The New York Post. She’d previously said her vote was private when asked.

Pilip has also shifted how she talks about the former president.

On Jan. 30, she told PIX 11 “nobody is above the law” when asked about Trump’s legal troubles. But by Feb. 4, she said in a CNN interview that Trump “didn’t commit any crime” when asked about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

On Monday, she praised Trump’s support for Israel, telling Fox 5 the former president “did great things for our country. He’s improved our economy.” (The Ethiopian-born Pilip lived in Israel before immigrating to the United States.)

Pilip has a slight advantage on this front. A Newsday/Siena College poll shows Trump leading Biden 47-42 in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters in the district. That’s a big change from 2020, when Biden beat Trump by eight points within the current district lines, according to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Still, both candidates are unpopular in the district. The same poll showed 57 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable opinion of Biden, and 55 percent feel unfavorably about Trump.

So Suozzi and Pilip face a delicate task in handling their party’s presumptive, yet otherwise unpopular nominees, four political leaders in New York and around the country said. A Biden spokesperson declined to comment on Suozzi’s campaign and a Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither congressional contenders want to turn off base party supporters who remain loyal to either Biden or Trump. But they also cannot afford to lose voters who hold otherwise unfavorable views of the president and former president during a race in which polarizing national issues like border security and support for Israel have been debated.

And that’s led both candidates to ultimately make the race about themselves even in a nationalized race, Siena College pollster Don Levy said.

“I think they’re both saying, ‘let me run on my own,’” he said.

In Biden’s case, it was Suozzi who wanted to keep his party’s de facto leader from appearing.

“The candidate did not want to complicate national issues with the race, which we saw is between Suozzi and Mazi and organization to organization,” Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chair and a Suozzi ally, said. “We had to deal with national issues like the migrant issue, which is not strong for us. But I thought Tom did a good job with that.”

Still, Biden has been engaged with the race from a distance. Jacobs, who attended a fundraiser in New York City with Biden last week, said the president asked about the dynamics of the election.

“He certainly understood the nuances. He certainly offered any help that we wanted, his team has been helpful,” Jacobs said. “I think he’s definitely interested in it and he will definitely be watching it.”

Trump, meanwhile, has also steered clear of the race as he toggles between locking up the Republican nomination and appears in court.

“I would have had no problem with him being involved in the race,” Conservative Party Chair Gerard Kassar said. “But with him running around the country, the question becomes whether there are already enough surrogates being involved.”

Pilip has benefited from a host of House Republicans who have campaigned alongside her, including Speaker Mike Johnson.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House GOP conference chair and a potential Trump running mate, rallied with Pilip in the district on Monday.

But Pilip supporters have also sought to lean into her biography as an Ethiopian refugee and former member of the Israel Defense Forces, hoping for a contrast with Suozzi, a longtime officeholder on Long Island.

“It’s simple politics of trying to be careful in how you might proxy a campaign,” Kassar said. “They’ve tried to make it more about Mazi.”

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