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Democrats Try To Flip Suburban NY District On Long Island; Long Island Voters Choosing Replacement For George Santos; Tom Suozzi Tries To Win Back NY-3 After Leaving Congress In 2022; Migration Takes Center Stage In New York Special Election; Suozzi: It's "Ridiculous" To Compare Me To "The Squad"; Trump Ask Justices To Block Appeals Court Ruling On Immunity; Fani Willis Faces Possible Removal From GA Election Case; Trump Supporting Daughter-In-Law To Be RNC Co-Chair. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 13, 2024 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, it's up to you New York. The special election to replace Republican Congressman George Santos is on. We'll look at what this race means for a House that's nearly evenly divided. And the tea leaves to be reading ahead of November.

Plus, an election denier and his daughter-in-law, that's who Donald Trump wants to lead the Republican National Committee showing the all, but certain nominee is tightening his vice and calling the shots in the GOP.

And disgusting, awful and unhinged. That's how Nikki Haley is responding to Trump mocking her husband again, who's in uniform serving America overseas. She is releasing a new ad in her home state hitting the former president on what he would do in a second term.

I'm Dana Bash. Let's go behind the headlines at Inside Politics.

We start in New York where voters in the state's third congressional district are braving a snowstorm to cast their ballots in a crucial special election. Democrat Tom Suozzi who represented the district for three terms wants a seat back. He's facing off against Republican newcomer Mazi Pilip to replace expelled Congressman George Santos. It is as tight as they come with enormous consequences.

I want to get straight to Athena Jones, who is at a polling place in Glen Cove on Long Island. Athena, what are you seeing so far?

ATHENA JONES, CNN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Dana. We've been to two polling places today. We started out at a middle school nearby. Early in the morning for about six to eight there were a few voters trickling and you can see now we're at a boys -- the Boys & Girls Club of Glen Cove. It's pretty empty in here.

And I've talked to several of the election workers here. One has been at it for eight years. One has been at it for about a dozen years. And both of them said this is the deadest they've seen it in a long time. And they attributed to number one, this being a special election. Two, the fact that it's snowing and it's snowing heavily outside. Schools are closed.

Maybe a lot of parents aren't commuting into work. They're not voting as they head to the train station to head into the city. Maybe they'll be coming around as we get later in the day. They also said that the early voting was pretty strong. More than 80,000 people cast votes early. More of those early votes were Democrats, and of course those will be tallied first.

But I have had a chance to speak to the roughly about 40 voters we've seen in the last four hours. About half of them I spoke to, and they broke down -- they broke kind of half and half, about eight for a Pilip and seven of them were for Suozzi. And they talk about exactly the things we've been seeing in the ads.

This is the most expensive race of the 2424 election cycle so far, because this could be a bellwether race. This district is encompassed parts of Nassau County and parts of Queens, which is part of New York City. And it's the kind of suburban district that many are looking to to decide the election in 2024 for the White House and for Congress.

And so, this has been kind of a nationalized race, lots of spending. Almost every single ad that Mazi Pilip campaign has run, has been attacking Tom Suozzi on immigration, on this idea that he's for open borders. Suozzi for his part has tried to attack Pilip for her stance on abortion or saying that her stance on these issues aren't very -- isn't very clear. And that if you vote for Pilip, you may get another George Santos, which is the ousted congressman they're trying to replace.

But the important thing here, Dana, is that this district, you know, for a good 30 years it was leaning Democrat. In the last few years that's changed quite a bit. Joe Biden won this race -- beat Trump by about eight points -- by eight points in 2020. And George Santos lost to Tom Suozzi by double digits in 2020.

But just two years later, Santos was able to beat his Democratic rival by seven points. So, you can kind of get a sense of how the mood of the district is changing. And so, we'll see what happens and we'll continue to talk to voters as much as we can and see who comes out on top, which party's messaging wins the day. Dana?

BASH: So interesting. And Athena, the snow is quite -- we don't know how it's going to affect the vote. But I will tell you that this morning Tom Suozzi told me in a text, it's snowing on Democrats and Republicans alike. And as you know, I like bipartisanship. So, we're trying to ---

JONES: And both campaigns are giving rides to the polls.

BASH: Oh, yeah. Well, that's an important point. Very important point. Athena, thank you so much. Last week, I traveled to New York Three and spoke to voters as they were coming out of an early voting location, about what's driving their choice in this race.


VIC CRECCO, NEW YORK VOTER: It has to do something about the border. I know they're trying, and the stupid are blocking it, so they could blame it on him.


MONICA CRECCO, NEW YORK VOTER: I'm concerned about our water, our air quality, all the things that are going ---

JOHN RICUPERO, NEW YORK VOTER: Well, that's been a border and everything that's been going on with that. I think you can see the effects of it all over the country, especially even here on Long Island.

RICK KARAS, NEW YORK VOTER: They try and see both sides of the issues, but I just see too much chaos.


BASH: Joining me now to break all of this down is my great panel of reporters. The Washington Post's Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN's Eva McKend and Kevin Frey of New York One. Nice to see you all. Let's just kind of set the table here with how much is being spent, and specifically where the money is being spent when it comes to the issues, because that's a good roadmap of where the parties and the campaigns think this is going to be decided.

On the Democratic side, I'm actually surprised to see that abortion -- the ads run 4.5 million on abortion and 4.4 million on immigration, and then law enforcement, social security and veterans. Because everybody's talking about the border, and that clearly is where Republicans are putting their money. 8 million on immigration, then law enforcement, taxation, crime and the economy. You cover New York? For New York One, you've been covering this race in particular. What are you seeing?

KEVIN FREY, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, NY1: Well, I mean, look, when you come to those ads, one of the things that's interesting is that obviously, they're hitting on abortion. That hasn't necessarily resonated so much in New York as you saw in 2022, in part because of the codification of abortion rights in law in New York.

And you've also seen movement on Long Island into the red column in recent cycles as well. So Suozzi is kind of hitting up against that. At the same time Suozzi has this institutional brand. He has been the mayor. He has been the Congressman. He has been the county executive. So, he is a known entity coming up against relatively unknown Mazi Pilip.

And so, there's all of these competing factors that makes it one complicated to read to too much into the results of this election, but also has allowed really the national politics of immigration to fill the void. Keep in mind, Suozzi was out early on trying to put Democrats on the offensive when it comes to immigration. We'll see how successful it was done. BASH: Yeah. And he's not alone. He's been very sort of trying to be very tough on immigration. In fact, I want you to listen to some of the ads that New Yorkers are seeing, pretty much anytime they turn on their television, anytime they open their phone. I mean, these ads are everywhere in New York. Let's like -- let's watch.


BASH: As I said to some people, when I was there last week, it is remarkable that New York, especially out on Long Island is so far from the southern border. And yet the Republican strategy to make this and everyone problem even in especially in blue states, it's very much working and it's playing out in this race.

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, EARLY 202 CO-AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: It's absolutely working. And this is -- this is really also going to be the first race. It's probably happened a little bit too late. But since this border deal in the Senate collapsed, Democrats are really trying to turn the script on Republicans and saying, look, we had a solution and the Republicans walked away from it.

Tom Suozzi has been invoking some of that in his campaigning as well. We'll see if it works. Republican sources, I'm talking to say that -- that Pilip was a little bit behind heading into today. And so, they are nervous. And as Athena said, this is traditionally a Democratic district. They've had a tough two years with George Santos. But immigration has really permeated in the state, especially with what's happening in New York City and the migrants being bused there.

BASH: Let's look at some of the data. You mentioned that Suozzi -- excuse me, that Mazi Pilip is a bit behind. Let's look at some of the data from the early vote. And this is 80,466 votes cast early, 46 percent by Democrats, 32 percent by Republicans and 22 percent by other.

Historically, the Democrats do better on getting their voters out, not just in New York, but pretty much everywhere. The Republicans were trying harder this time. They didn't do as well in the early vote. They rely much more historically on the day of.


EVA MCKEND, CNN, NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Both parties though, we're pushing it. And so that is I think a good thing, a healthy thing for Republicans to engage in this way because they're only losing votes on the table if they're not participating in the early process. I'm curious to see if this democratic strategy of sort of relying on Old Faithful works in this race.

They have a penchant for pushing candidates who sometimes aren't all that exciting are sort of safe bets, and I think that's what Suozzi represents. So, I'm wondering, does that work? Does that strategy work in a race like this one? And then also, on the messaging on immigration. Well, Democrats if they lose this contest, have to go back to the drawing board is the strategy of sort of trying to at times out demonize immigrants wanting to really work for them, maybe not.

FREY: I was going to say on the notion of Old Faithful. It's also worth noting that in New York, where you have all these competitive districts that Democrats really need to win if Hakeem Jeffries wants to be speaker of the House. You are seeing a lot of the leading contenders on the Democratic side of the aisle are repeats of what we saw in 2022.

BASH: Yeah. And in talking about oath Old Faithful. I'm just going to bring in a bit of color on that. One of the constituents the voters in that district sent me this postcard that they got from a volunteer handwritten postcard from a Mazi -- excuse me, a Suozzi volunteer. You can see it there. And that is Old Faithful, old school. I mean, that is about as old school as it gets. And the Suozzi campaign, they have volunteers apparently thousands of volunteers, handwriting notes saying please come and vote.

Don't get me wrong. And you know this, the Pilip campaign, they have a very big Nassau County Republican machine, getting out their vote. But just on the kind of dynamics in this middle of the road, kind of district.

One of the things that Suozzi, the Democrat is trying to do is -- and you heard me make a joke about the fact that snow is bipartisan is separate himself from the left of his party, because people in his district are not thrilled by the way the Democratic Party is going. Listen to what he told me.


TOM SUOZZI, (D) NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: All stand up to the left of my party, or I'll stand up to anybody, if I disagree with what they're saying. I'm a Democrat. I believe in the basic democratic values, but I'm concerned about the leftward drift in many cases. Well, what's the big attack on me in this race, is that Tom Suozzi is a member of the squad. That's ridiculous.


BASH: And before you guys come in on this, I just want to make sure everybody understands the big picture here and what the stakes are. We're talking about a balance of power here in Washington. 219 Republicans, 212 Democrats, four are vacant. This race is to fill one of those vacancies.

And New York -- these areas in and around New York City, they gave Republicans that narrow majority because there were so many -- what we call crossover districts, districts that Joe Biden one, but Republicans became the Congress members in those districts. That's what one of the many reasons why what we're going to see tonight is so crucial.

CALDWELL: Yeah. I mean, yes. Looking ahead to just six, seven months from now in November, New York is -- could give Republicans or Democrats a path to the majority. There's more than a half a dozen seats that are toss up seats there. But it's also important to note that whoever wins has to run again in November ---

FREY: In a different map.

CALDWELL: This is what I was going to say, in a new redistricting map there could be much more helpful for Democrats. What's interesting about the Tom Suozzi is that he is someone who is trying to undercut Republican attacks on him, not only on immigration but on Israel as well. We'll see if it works.

BASH: Yeah. And she's very, very unknown.

MCKEND: She is. And you know, the members of that district took a chance to last time. I don't know if they have an appetite to take a chance again on an unknown.

BASH: We'll see. That's why we do what we do. And be sure to tune into special coverage right here on CNN tonight to get the latest. And coming up. Trump family takeover. As he gets closer to locking down the Republican nomination. He wants Republicans to make his daughter- in-law the new RNC co-chair. We'll talk about that next.




BASH: This morning, Chief Justice John Roberts said the special counsel has one week to respond to Donald Trump's latest efforts to claim immunity from prosecution and delay his trials for as long as possible. Now one key argument that Trump is making is that if the case is allowed to move forward, it would quote, radically disrupt Trump's ability to run for president.

To help us understand the legal side of this, we have Elie Honig, CNN senior legal analyst and also a former Assistant U.S. Attorney. Hey, Elie, thank you so much for doing this. The central argument in this latest move by the Trump team is to get a fair trial, they should delay effectively saying, let's just put this off till after the election. From a legal standpoint, how will sort of this transparent linking of his political fortunes to his legal case play out?

ELIE HONIG, CNN, SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, Dana, we are truly in uncharted territory here. We've never had anyone in this situation before. We've never had anyone facing a potential criminal trial in the process of running for president. So, when we talk about something being unprecedented, this is that.

Now my suspicion is that argument will not resonate at all with the justices. I don't think they will find it to be a relevant consideration at all. I don't think it's the job of any judge to think about, well, how might a trial inconvenience this person in his professional life.

[12:20:00] And Dana, really important for our viewers to understand. We've seen Donald Trump at his various civil trials sort of come and go at his own whim. Some days he's there, some days he's not. When the criminal trial start that no longer becomes optional. Any criminal defendant must be physically present in court the whole time through.

BASH: That's very interesting. And again, a key point. How could the different possible Supreme Court decision -- staying on the Supreme Court for a second effect. When we see a Trump trial?

HONIG: Yeah. So, the big one happening now is this immunity case. This is Jack Smith's prosecution in Washington D.C. relating to the 2020 election. And I think we'll get a really important answer within the next several weeks. The Supreme Court is going to have to decide very soon.

First of all, are they going to keep the trial court proceedings stayed or paused? They've been paused for the last two months or so. And Jack Smith will surely ask them to un-pause it. But the bigger question is, will the Supreme Court take this case at all?

If they reject it -- and Jack Smith surely will urge them to reject it, then the right back in business in the District Court, and they can schedule a trial. I think for the likely to late spring, early summer. But if the Supreme Court wants to hear this case and it only takes four justices, that's going to take several months and that could push this all out till after the election. So, the stakes are that high.

BASH: Elie, let's go back to one of the points that you made about the criminal trials that Donald Trump is facing. Earlier this month, just looking at Georgia rather, you wrote a piece on all the problems that Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis is facing as she tries to keep control of her election interference case against Donald Trump and alleged co- conspirators.

This week she's facing a hearing on whether to disqualify her from the case. The judge plans to hear evidence on whether Willis financially benefited from a relationship with a special prosecutor, she hired to work on the case.

Now it sounds like Willis's problems have only gotten worse. Where do things stand right now? And what do you think the impact could be on the case?

HONIG: Yeah. Yesterday was a bad day for the D.A, Dana. I think our problems continued to multiply. So, the allegation that several defendants, including Donald Trump have made is that there's a conflict of interest that she has been in this personal romantic relationship with one of the outside people brought in to prosecute this case. She has since admitted that that's true, and that there was an intermingling of finances, that creates a conflict of interest.

Yesterday, there was a hearing -- a zoom hearing that we were able to see where the D.A.'s office said, judge, you should just throw this out. There's not even a need to hold a hearing. Well, the judge said, I disagree. There is some serious disputed facts here. Therefore, we're going to have a hearing on Thursday. And Dana, we'll be able to watch that live. I think we're bringing it on CNN, that's going to be really interesting to watch.

But that is going to be a really problematic proceeding for the D.A. It could wind up in the D.A. or Nathan Wade or both of them being essentially disqualified from this case, which would cause even larger problems as to whether this case ever happens at all? And if so, where and when.

BASH: So much drama, so much uncertainty. Thank you so much for breaking it all down, or at least some of it all down. Elie, appreciate it. And my panel of reporters, they're back here now. Let's just sort of take a beat. And think about what we're going to see just this week.

We have the -- as we were hearing potentially for the Supreme Court to answer about immunity. But we also have Georgia, the criminal case there, we're hearing about Fani Willis, and then New York. Don't forget about the New York case. There is that case about corruption.

MCKEND: And this is why Nikki Haley is arguing on the campaign trail that the former president is too distracted to really care about your issues. And then if all of this were not enough, Trump is also trying to remake the RNC to have nothing but sort of emphatic supporters of him.

That could be problematic because we know an entity like this is extremely serious. We know the Democrats are heavily outracing Republicans. And that sometimes in organizations like this requires a little check and balance. It seems like Trump is trying to get rid of that all together at a time when he is really going to need the RNC, when he has it all on the line.

BASH: Yeah. No question. It is tradition for nominees and both parties to have a very heavy hand and who the party chair should be. This particular change with Ronna McDaniel, who he did choose back in 2016.

He plucked her from Michigan and said she should be the RNC chair. Pushing her out and instead pushing this Michael Whatley from North Carolina. Our Kfile looked at the fact that he's very actively to your point. They're either actively parroting Donald Trump's 2020 election lies.


CALDWELL: So, Michael Whatley has been someone who has been one of closest -- Trump's closest allies. He has been a successful head of the North Carolina Republican Party. He was elected in 2019. North Carolina went for Trump in 2020. North Carolina reelected a Republican senator in 2022 with the help of Michael Whatley.

But I will say, I remember covering that 2022 Senate race and there are a lot of Republicans who did not want Trump in the state to get engaged in that race. And Michael Whatley wanted Trump in there. He thought that Trump was good for the state, good for the base and good for voter turnout. And so, this is someone who Trump trust. This is someone who will do Trump's bidding. What is more untested is if Trump wants his daughter-in-law to be co-chair.

MCKEND: Democrats also didn't adequately support Jere Beasley in that contest with us for another day.

BASH: Let's look at when you did the last point you just made about his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. This is what Trump said in a statement. My very talented daughter-in-law Lara Trump has agreed to run as the RNC co-chair. Lara is an extremely talented communicator, dedicated to all that MAGA stands for. She told me she wants to accept this challenge and would be great. Wow. I mean, there's nepotism and then there's this. Now, she isn't active campaigner for her father-in- law.

FREY: Right. And prolifically appears on television and social media posts, et cetera, to promote him. So, this is not outside of the realm of that, but obviously throwing a personal connection into this capacity does raise some eyebrows. But she has been an effective communicator. Trump likes effective communicator. People that go out there and fight for her. And I believe there is a history of family members sometimes be excused into the party. Correct me if I'm wrong.

BASH: Jared Kushner helped run his campaign.

FREY: Oh. I missed, outside of the White House.

BASH: Oh, Oh, Oh. I thought you were just talking about Trump. I'm just thinking Ivanka Trump. I mean, you know, we know the history, and that was on a policy level. This is just politics. You talked about Nikki Haley and her campaign.

This is what her campaign manager said. Trump just announced he is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Under Donald Trump, the current RNC leadership, Republicans lost elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and now the RNC is effectively bankrupt.

MCKEND: I mean, she has to make that argument because they're not supporting her at all. She's still in this contest. She's still running this race. But the RNC is basically engaged in a pressure campaign to get her to step out. So, this is her pushback.

BASH: All right, everybody standby, because the Senate just pulled off a rare bipartisan win. So why won't the House speaker bring their bill to the floor shocker. Golf comes down to Donald Trump. We'll tell you what the details are after a quick break.