Will Illegal Immigration Drive GOP Turnout as Much as Abortion Has Driven Democrats?
All eyes will be on the special election to replace George Santos.
EVER SINCE THE SUPREME COURT HANDED DOWN the Dobbs decision, Republicans have been losing elections faster than Donald Trump has been losing court cases. This is due in large part to the exodus from the GOP of female voters: Conservative-leaning independent and Republican women had been voting for Democrats in growing numbers since Trump’s takeover of the party in 2016, but the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 set the trend on hyperdrive, dashing Republicans’ hopes for a red wave in the 2022 midterms and in numerous special elections since then. Republicans, keenly aware that the blowback from women is likely to jeopardize their White House and congressional fortunes this November, have been scrambling to find a foil to the powerful issue of abortion rights. They think they’ve found it in illegal immigration.
Their theory will be put to the test on Tuesday in the special election in New York to fill the seat vacated by indicted fabulist George Santos. The district is among the wealthiest in the nation and it boasts a high percentage of college graduates for a Republican-held seat. It is one of a small number of districts across the country that both voted for Joe Biden for president and is represented in the House by a Republican (or at least was before Santos was expelled in December). Ticket-splitting like this is rare in today’s hyperpartisan America; it’s found in just a handful of districts where there is a critical mass of high-information voters who take the time to discern both the policy and political implications of their vote.
So this special election is the perfect test case of whether one of the most-prized groups of voters actually shifting in the electorate—suburban college-educated white women—will be more motivated by abortion or by immigration.
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In one corner, there’s abortion. Women have been fired up in response to the Dobbs decision, and there’s no question that will continue for some time. Remarkable electoral outcomes protecting women’s rights in conservative states like Ohio and Kansas have rattled Republican consultants to their cores.
In the other corner, there’s immigration. Illegal border crossings have spiked since 2021, and many Republicans are betting that nothing scares a white suburban soccer mom more than a brown man sneaking across the border—one who might be a criminal or a drug dealer. Nationally, voter opinion has moved decisively toward Republicans on the issue, making it the single weakest issue for Biden against Trump, even in staunchly blue enclaves like New York City. The immigration debate hasn’t looked like this since 2007, when immigration, both legal and illegal, dropped considerably. The creaking border is now in crisis, as thousands of undocumented migrants flow into the United States.
IN NEW YORK’S 3RD CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT, where Tuesday’s special election is being held between Republican Mazi Pilip and Democrat Tom Suozzi, an Emerson College poll in January found that 26 percent of voters consider immigration the most important issue, while abortion access scored at the bottom at 4 percent—suggesting there has been some slippage of abortion as a primary motivator for voters, including women. However, those respondents for whom abortion remained the top concern said nearly universally that they would vote for Suozzi (99 to 1 percent). Among those who ranked immigration first, Pilip won (68 to 17 percent). In more recent polls, conducted last week by Emerson College and Siena College, NY03 voters said they trusted Suozzi to do a better job than Pilip on abortion (by 55 to 32 in the Siena poll and 56 to 44 in the Emerson poll), and trusted Pilip over Suozzi on immigration (by 49 to 40 in the Siena poll and 53 to 47 in the Emerson poll). And, as the director of the Emerson poll, Spencer Kimball, noted, “Independents break toward Pilip on [immigration] over Suozzi, 63% to 37%.” Because more voters prioritize immigration than abortion, Republicans seemed poised to benefit most.
The issue matrix is complicated here, as it is in most swing districts, but it’s possible to look ahead toward November. Although Biden won the district in 2020, his numbers here are now abysmal. Still, in a head-to-head against Trump, he’s just 5 points behind in the district, according to the Siena poll.
As for Tuesday’s special election, Democrats seem to be significantly outperforming the Republicans, having reported spending three times more money on the race than the GOP. Early signs look as though it’s working. By party registration, Democrats hold a slim margin of more absentee and early votes cast over 2022, all of which points to a razor-thin election in either direction. Most polls show Suozzi leading Pilip, but with enough undecided voters to make either candidate the winner.
Of course, the issues alone won’t determine the winner. Other factors, such as bad weather—forecasters predict two feet of snow on Election Day—will likely prove important, too. But the results will be interpreted, no matter what, in light of the salience of illegal immigration, the dominant issue in New York City at the moment.
All of which goes to say there’s a lot of uncertainty and plenty of spin to be had for either side if the election is close—say, within five points either way. If it’s greater than that in Suozzi’s favor, Democrats will still claim, with credibility, to have Dobbs as a cudgel. If Republican Mazi Pilip wins by more than five, Republicans will conclude they were right to pick for their major issue in 2024 the specter of illegal immigration.
Mike Madrid is a Republican consultant and author of the forthcoming book The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority is Transforming Democracy.