Israel has a funny habit of ending up at the center of American political campaigns. Long Island Republicans, desperately needing a candidate who can unify the party for an open seat, found themselves with two IDF veterans among their potential nominees. Yesterday, they chose one of them to represent the GOP in a special election to the seat vacated by the disgraced George Santos.
The party’s pick possesses one of the most interesting biographies of any candidate for Congress. And it’s also a biography that appears to be accurate—which is important in replacing Santos, who boasted a background that was quite literally too good to be true. Among the debunked claims made by the expelled Republican were that his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, that he was Jewish (later adjusted to “Jew-ish”), that his mother’s death was a result of 9/11, that he was a star volleyball player for Baruch College, and that he worked on Wall Street. He is facing federal fraud charges and was expelled from Congress after an ethics investigation into his use of campaign funds.
On Friday morning, the Long Island GOP introduced Mazi Melesa Pilip, the woman that the party hopes will take his place. Pilip, whose competitors for the nomination included IDF vet Daniel Norber, was born in Ethiopia and brought to Israel as a child as part of the famed Operation Solomon airlifts. She is an Orthodox mother of seven who served as an IDF paratrooper and as vice president of her Long Island synagogue, the former presumably a training run for the latter.
The war in Gaza will likely hover in the background of the Feb. 13 election. Pilip’s primary rival was in Israel when Hamas attacked on Oct. 7—Norber was born there and his parents still live there. IDF paratroopers, meanwhile, have been leading the offensive in Khan Younis, so Pilip’s specific military experience will be of interest. This morning on Fox, Pilip was asked how her experience in the IDF shaped her as a person. And although her Democratic opponent, Tom Suozzi, has a reputation as a moderate and has supported Israel in the past (he has previously held the seat), Pilip criticized Suozzi for supposedly approaching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a request to “join the Squad.” She didn’t mention Israel in that comment, but she didn’t have to.
Pilip also entered politics in large part because of rising anti-Semitism, which her son had encountered in school. That subject is everywhere at the moment.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of the election, though, is the revelation that the Republican Party is now actually thoroughly vetting its candidates.
Politico reports that “New York Republicans — determined to avoid another Santos saga — have conducted about 20 candidate interviews with a dozen or so selection committee members sitting in on each session.… They’ve also enlisted the help of three outside firms to perform background checks.”
Nearly every news item on the race today described Pilip’s nomination as having come “after extensive vetting.” Republicans nationally might want to take notes; candidate recruitment is one of their recurring problems. As Roll Call’s David Winston has pointed out, the 2022 exit polls showed Republicans had a three-point advantage on party identification during the election, a record high for the GOP. Yet the much-anticipated “red wave” never materialized in large part because the party lost independents.
Democrats, meanwhile, are watching their base lose its mind—most notably over its support for Hamas. Suozzi has the potential to bring some common sense back into the mix. If nothing else, the election for Santos’s replacement may give us two months of weirdly normal campaign politics. We’ll just have to remember not to get used to it.