A Party of One

Tom Suozzi speaks following his victory in the special election to replace Republican Rep. George Santos on February 13, 2024, in Woodbury, New York. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

“The verdict from NY-03 is clear,” Semafor’s Dave Weigel joked after Tuesday’s special election was called for Democrat Tom Suozzi. “Suburban voters want Joe Biden to be even older.”

Good news for those suburban voters, I guess: Biden will be even older come November.

Younger readers won’t believe me but America was once a proper country in which only the most pathetically addicted political junkies paid attention to special election results. Last night analyst Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report marveled at how times have changed. “If I had to write a letter to my teenage election nerd self,” he said, “it would begin: ‘I know it feels lonely now. But don’t worry: In 25 years, special elections featuring 170k voters deciding 1/435th of the House will get wall-to-wall live coverage on national cable news.’”

He wasn’t kidding. CNN spent hours in prime time on Tuesday evening obsessively tracking and analyzing the results of the race between Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip. By the end of the evening, Weigel’s joke was the only take that hadn’t been semi-seriously offered to explain the result.

If you’re looking for reasons why special elections seem more important now than they used to, take your pick. The 24-hour nature of modern media leaves platforms forever starved for new content; perennially tight margins in the House and Senate have raised the legislative stakes of every race; intense polarization between the parties and the creeping nationalization of politics have intensified the rooting interests; and the growing Trumpiness of the right turns each new contest into a gut check on how swing voters are liking the GOP’s new authoritarian direction.

The irony of Americans paying outsize attention to special elections is that, in an era of “bespoke realities,” it’s never been easier for the losing party to convince its base that there are no grand lessons to be drawn from the result. Already on Wednesday morning, the scramble was on among Republicans to blame Pilip’s failure exclusively on the local GOP leadership in Nassau County or of course on Pilip herself. The chairman of the New York Republican Party handwaved the outcome away as a product of “specific circumstances” and vowed that it’s full speed ahead toward the general election.

Every victory is vindication, every defeat is meaningless. That’s politics.

In this case, I confess, I’m instinctively sympathetic to the Republican position. “LOL nothing matters” is the pessimist’s credo; when in doubt about whether any political development is likely to move the needle of public opinion, the answer is almost always “no.”

But two things give me pause about the outcome in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. One is that Suozzi notably outperformed the polls, some of which had the race as a toss-up down the stretch. He ended up winning by nearly 8 points in an area that’s been trending Republican over the past few years.

The other is the result in Tuesday’s other race, which took place in Pennsylvania. Caring about a state legislative special election in which not even 10,000 people voted is pitiful even by modern standards but the outcome in the 140th District is an eye-popper. Control of the Pennsylvania House, currently deadlocked at 101 seats apiece, was on the line and Biden’s 11-point margin of victory there over Trump in 2020 wasn’t world-beating. With the president as unpopular as he is, a Republican upset seemed like a longshot but not a no-shot.

The Democrat ended up winning by 35 points

Are there, in fact, any grand lessons to be gleaned from last night’s results or—LOL—does nothing matter?

The argument for nothing mattering is genuinely strong in New York’s 3rd District. It begins, and could plausibly end, with simply remembering why this election was necessary in the first place.

This is George Santos’ district. In 2022, after years of electing Democrats to Congress, swing voters there rolled the dice on a charismatic young Republican. Their reward was having to watch in horror as that youngster was exposed as a lifelong con artist, indicted on nearly two dozen federal criminal charges, and eventually expelled from the House. Few voters have ever been burned as badly by their representative as the voters of NY-03 were. Go figure that they might choose to punish Santos and the GOP for it by electing a Democrat to replace him.

And not just any Democrat. The man who preceded Santos as the district’s representative in Congress was … Tom Suozzi.

Suozzi gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2022 but had obviously amassed high name recognition locally from his time in the House. That was a major advantage over the newcomer Pilip. So was spending: Democrats dropped roughly $14 million to try to flip the seat while Republicans countered with $8.3 million. Normally when one candidate is much better known than the other and has more money behind them, that candidate wins. Where’s the “grand lesson” to be drawn from that?

We can take the “nothing matters” explanation for Suozzi’s victory even further. In 2024, Democrats overperforming in a special election is a “dog bites man” story. It’s no longer news when they win one. It’s news when they don’t.

Last year they overperformed in special elections by an average of 10 points. Some of that may have been driven by an ongoing backlash to the end of Roe v. Wade, but my guess is that it’s primarily an artifact of ongoing realignment between the two parties. Working-class voters are moving right while college-educated voters are moving left, and those college grads tend to be more highly engaged with day-to-day politics. So when elections are held at odd times, like in the middle of February, we’d expect the Democrats’ new base to turn out in greater numbers than the GOP’s.

Which, it appears, is what happened in NY-03. And that would also explain the shocking margin in Pennsylvania’s 140th District.

All in all, then, House Speaker Mike Johnson is correct in surmising that the grand lesson for November from Tuesday’s result is … there isn’t one. Suozzi was an unusually well-known quasi-incumbent running against a nobody in a favorable political environment with a spending edge and a baked-in turnout advantage. (It even snowed in New York on Election Day, possibly further depressing turnout among the GOP’s lower-propensity voters.) In fact, for all the hype about reading special election results as portents of the presidential election, historically that turns out to be a fool’s errand. According to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, there’s been practically no correlation between the two for the past 30 years.

“LOL nothing matters” is, in short, almost always the right read on a race like Tuesday’s.

But there is one element of it that’s noteworthy.

As my colleagues at Dispatch Politics explained today, Suozzi managed to successfully separate himself from a Democratic president who’s 16 points underwater in job approval on that president’s single greatest policy liability. And not just separate himself but go on offense on the issue—and win handily.

That issue is immigration, of course. Rather than defend Biden’s border policies, Suozzi positioned himself as an enforcement hawk by lambasting Republicans in Congress for sinking the bipartisan Senate bill negotiated by James Lankford. It was Pilip, he insisted, who would exacerbate New York’s migrant crisis in Congress by joining with her party to further obstruct legislative attempts to slow the flow of border crossings. The result, he claimed, would be “more migrants coming to New York—and on top of that, they’re gonna have access to AR-15s,” an elegant gun-control flourish for his liberal base.

But he didn’t spare the president and his own party from criticism. Over the course of the two-month campaign, the Times reported, Suozzi “broke with party orthodoxy, calling on Mr. Biden to shut down the southern border and demanding that migrants charged with assaulting police officers in Times Square be deported.” He didn’t invite the president to campaign for him either, and even hedged when he was asked whether he thought Biden really would be the Democratic nominee this fall. “The bottom line is, he’s old,” he told a local news affiliate.

All of this is strange.

It’s strange for any Democrat to successfully neutralize an issue as ripe and as dangerous for his party as immigration is right now. It’s the equivalent of a liberal running on funding the police in 2020 and successfully disarming a law-and-order Republican in doing so, a political magic trick. And it’s really strange for a candidate down ballot to successfully shrug off the political albatross of an unpopular presidency. There’s a reason why, with one exception, the president’s party has been brutalized in every congressional midterm election dating back to 2006. When voters don’t like him, they’re not inclined to send candidates who support him to Congress.

But that one exception is notable. It came in 2022, when Democrats beat expectations of a red wave and held the GOP to marginal gains in the House and a loss of one seat in the Senate. Then, as now, Joe Biden turned out to be not quite the albatross his predecessors were. Why?

I wonder if it might be due to his age becoming an accidental and unlikely asset to the left in a very particular way.

It’s easy to hold candidates from the president’s party responsible for his policies when that president is dynamic and in command. Strong personalities like Barack Obama or Donald Trump make a vivid impression on the public, for good or ill, and so a casual voter might reasonably expect a member of either man’s party down ballot to serve his agenda loyally once seated in Congress. Biden is the opposite, though—neither dynamic nor seemingly in control of events, to the point where conspiracy theorists often wonder who’s “really” running the country.

If you’re the sort of person who views America as functionally leaderless right now due to the president’s questionable health, it might be easy to view Tom Suozzi and other congressional Democrats as independent actors rather than servants to the White House. They’re not afraid of defying Joe Biden on the border or anything else, it appears, and why should they be? It’s unclear whether the president has much of a political will left for anyone to defy.

Assuming that’s how swing voters feel, Biden’s immense immigration baggage might weigh less heavily on Democratic candidates than we expect. In fact, his own spokesman is encouraging members of the party today to follow Suozzi’s lead by turning the tables on Republicans and accusing them of being soft on the border. Under any other president with Biden’s record, that argument would seem absurd. But with a president in absentia—or at least widely perceived that way—Democrats down ballot have a greater opportunity to fashion their own political “brand” than members of the president’s party typically do. 

Somewhere right now, perhaps, Mike Johnson is ruminating on that fact and wondering if declaring the Senate border bill “dead on arrival,” guaranteeing further immigration chaos this year, is as much of a winner for his party as he thought it’d be.

That’s one possible lesson of Suozzi’s win, that congressional Democrats might be able to successfully separate themselves from Biden in November. There’s another.

The second lesson is a mirror of the first. If Democrats are increasingly a party with many legislators but no leader, Republicans are increasingly a party with a leader and no legislators.

The Republican Party is now scarcely a party at all, just some apparatchiks who reliably do Donald Trump’s bidding on everything except foreign policy, and soon perhaps on that too. And as it happens, the failure of the Senate border deal of which Tom Suozzi made so much hay illustrated that in an unusually stark way. Trump, allegedly the ultimate immigration restrictionist, ended up lobbying against the bill’s passage for no better reason than that a more secure border before November would damage his chances of reelection.

The so-called party of law and order chose nine more months of disorder because its presidential nominee expects to profit electorally from it. That was the political backdrop for the 3rd District race. And some voters, it appears, were mindful of it.

By electing Pilip, voters there would have been rewarding Republicans at a moment when it’s never been clearer that the GOP now exists to serve its leader’s interests more so than its voters’. As such, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that Trump himself will be the de facto candidate in every congressional race in the country this fall.

It’s a party of one. Just ask the person who’s likely to become the new co-chair of the Republican National Committee—his daughter-in-law, Lara, who vowed on Tuesday that the “only job” of the committee under her leadership would be reelecting Trump.

Normally the RNC is charged with bankrolling Republican candidates from coast to coast in hopes of maximizing the party’s representation in government. But in a party of one, owned and operated by the Trump family, there’s effectively only one candidate.

Trump himself is eager for his party to be perceived that way. Being a pathological narcissist, he seems to earnestly believe that there’s no electoral problem facing the GOP that can’t be solved with a more potent dose of him. His own read on the results Tuesday was that Pilip, a “very foolish woman,” lost because she didn’t show him enough love:

That’s his standard reaction when Republicans in battleground districts sensibly keep him at arm’s length yet end up losing anyway. Every race in the party of one is a referendum on the leader, and that’s the way the leader likes it. As does the other party.

Various political pathologies flow from the “party of one” dynamic.

Per Politico, Suozzi crushed Pilip in early and absentee voting in Nassau County, taking 57 percent of the vote. That was widely read as a lingering artifact of the suspicion Trump has bred in Republican voters of casting ballots through any means except same-day voting, which in this case meant trudging out in the snow. A movement that won’t avail itself of every legal avenue to vote because its leader is irrationally paranoid isn’t a movement that regards winning elections and wielding power as its primary goals.

The ethic of sabotage and self-sabotage that now defines the congressional GOP has also turned pathological. By the admission of its own members, the House Republican majority hasn’t achieved much. Like Trump himself, it’s not good at making law but it’s great at breaking things, be it the Senate border compromise, the new foreign aid package for Ukraine and Israel, or its own leadership. Some voters in New York noticed that as well:

Maybe Suozzi’s endorsement of the Senate border bill appealed to locals not so much because of the specific merits of the bill than the fact that he was willing to pass something to try to secure the border. In the party of one, legislating isn’t a priority. More voters seem to be noticing.

Alienating swing voters would be bad but manageable if the GOP were reliably replacing them at the polls with new working-class voters. But that takes us back to the point about the Democrats’ growing base of high-propensity college grads: A major problem for the party of one is that, to many of its nominal members, it truly is a party of one. And those members might understandably be less inclined to show up to vote Republican when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot.

That’s another reason not to read much into Suozzi’s victory. The electorate in November will look much different from the one that turned out on Tuesday. But the GOP’s growing dependence on Trump loyalists means it’s ever more indebted to him electorally and therefore ever more obliged to indulge his nuttiest tendencies. When he babbles about encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies who aren’t spending enough on defense, or takes a dig at Nikki Haley’s husband while he’s deployed overseas, or gooses the “Taylor Swift is a deep-state asset” nuts by warning her publicly not to endorse Biden, there’s nothing to be done. What would turnout for the party of one be without its “one”?

“Let’s just say the quiet part out loud. Donald Trump continues to be a huge weight against Republican candidates,” Nikki Haley’s spokesman said in a statement after the New York race was called for Suozzi. “Despite the enormous and obvious failings of Joe Biden, we just lost another winnable Republican House seat because voters overwhelmingly reject Donald Trump. Until Republicans wake up, we will continue to lose.” It’s too late for that, though. Sensible Republican voters have already left, or are leaving. Sensible Republican legislators are, too. What’s left of this party prefers Trump, overwhelmingly, to Haley herself and to Ron DeSantis.

If she dislikes the idea of every race in the country being a de facto choice between a Democrat and Donald Trump, she can—and should—follow them out the door. Only when the “party of one” model loses decisively might (might) its members be convinced that a party of one is a pernicious, nihilistic, and ultimately unsuccessful form of politics. If Tom Suozzi’s victory provides a further small nudge in that direction, it’ll have been good for the country, and for the right.

Comments (179)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More