By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats will try to whittle away Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in a New York special election on Tuesday to fill the vacancy created by Republican George Santos’ ouster from the chamber.

Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Republican county legislator who served in the Israeli military, and Tom Suozzi, a Democratic former congressman, county executive and mayor, are seeking the seat representing a small corner of New York City and some of its eastern suburbs.

Republicans hold a narrow, unruly 219-212 House majority that has proven hard to manage, illustrated by the chamber’s failure last week to pass a measure to impeach President Joe Biden’s top border official, Alejandro Mayorkas, which fell short by one vote. The House plans to vote on that measure again, hoping the return of No. 2 Republican Steve Scalise from cancer treatment will get the measure over the line.

Santos was expelled by the House in a historic vote after a nearly 11-month tenure, when his fellow lawmakers ejected him over criminal corruption charges and allegations of misspending campaign money.

Early voting in the race began on Feb. 3. Though the district supported Biden in the 2020 election, Republicans in the New York area are considered to have a formidable turnout operation and swept a number of congressional seats there two years ago.

A large winter storm bearing down on the region could hamper voter turnout on Tuesday.

A central issue in this election has been immigration, as it has been elsewhere in the country ahead of an expected rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump in November.

Pilip has repeatedly hammered Suozzi and the Democratic Party on the issue, accusing them of failing to control crossings at the southern border with Mexico. Pilip was endorsed by a labor union for Border Patrol officers.

“I kept migrants from being sent to Nassau and will secure the border when I get to Congress,” Pilip wrote in a Facebook post, referring to Nassau County.

Suozzi has called Pilip’s attacks against him misleading and has said she has been short of specifics on how she would address border security. He has touted his own bipartisan immigration compromise and criticized Republicans for rejecting a bipartisan border security deal negotiated in the Senate, which collapsed after Trump urged Republicans to spurn it.

“Ms. Pilip points out there’s a problem, there’s a problem, there’s a problem. She has no solutions,” Suozzi said in the election’s only debate.

Neither candidate’s campaign responded to requests for comment.

Lawrence Levy, the executive dean at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said the special election could play a key role in determining both parties’ strategies in the suburbs ahead of elections in November.

“This race could be a bellwether for swing suburban districts around the country that are going to decide who controls the gavels of Congress,” he said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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