George Santos’ exit sets up a competitive special election

GOP Rep. George Santos’ expulsion from the House is set to kick off a competitive New York special election in territory where Democrats won comfortably in 2020 but Republicans have made a series of recent gains.

And the battle to replace Santos could shape up as a test of both parties’ strategies ahead of 2024.

Democratic and Republican campaign strategists are expecting a hard-fought and expensive race for New York’s 3rd District, which is based on Long Island. Santos was one of 18 Republicans representing a district Joe Biden won in 2020, and Democrats are hoping to flip multiple House seats in New York next year as they try to take control of the chamber. 

But while Biden carried the district by 8 percentage points in 2020, per calculations from Daily Kos Elections, Democrats cautioned that the race would be competitive, noting Republican victories on Long Island in the midterms and in local elections earlier this month. Santos, for example, won the district in 2022 by an 8-point margin.

“Long Island is notorious for swing voters,” said former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who represented a previous version of the 3rd District.

Israel, who previously chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, later added, “You can’t just look at the numbers and say it’s a decent Democratic district. It’s become a very fluid district where people are voting against their own party registration.”

Israel and other strategists in both parties said recent GOP successes on Long Island are due to the Nassau County GOP’s robust turnout operation and Republicans’ emphasis on issues such as crime and inflation.

“Democrats have long been suffering losses in New York thanks to their pro-crime and pro-open border policies,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Savannah Viar said in a statement. “We will continue to win elections through New York despite the Democrats’ all-out effort to gerrymander their way through weak candidates and these extreme policies.”

New York State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, who also leads the Nassau County party, said the district “is going to be a lot like the canary in the coal mine” for 2024.

Jacobs said Democrats need a “moderate” candidate who speaks to personal safety and the cost of living, and he said Democrats would focus on tying the GOP candidate to Republicans’ “extreme agenda.” 

Leveraging the issue of abortion is part of that strategy — the issue has propelled Democratic victories in last year’s midterms and other elections earlier this year. But Jacobs said Democrats’ effort would be broader than that, citing other top concerns for Long Island voters like protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Santos himself could also be a factor in the race, even out of Congress. Santos dominated headlines for months before lawmakers from both parties voted Friday to oust him, following a damning Ethics Committee report that found him appearing to break multiple federal laws in his 2022 campaign. 

“No matter how hard they try to spin history, Long Island Republicans knew from the start that George Santos was a serial liar who has no business representing Long Islanders in Congress,” said DCCC spokesperson Ellie Dougherty. “We’ll make sure voters know who’s responsible for enabling distrust and corruption in New York’s 3rd Congressional District — and that’s the Republican Party.” 

Candidates gear up for a quick campaign

The candidates who will compete to replace Santos won’t have much time to make their cases to voters. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has 10 days to declare a special election, which must occur between 70 and 80 days after that proclamation.

The race is expected to be expensive, with outside groups gearing up to engage in the campaign.

House Majority PAC, Democrats’ main super PAC involved in House races, “plans to play a significant role in the NY-03 special election, and we will do whatever it takes to flip this district blue,” HMP president Mike Smith said in a statement.

County party leaders will select their nominees, and they’re expected to do so shortly after Hochul declares a special election.

Jacobs said he is consulting with Hochul, as well as Rep. Gregory Meeks, who chairs the Queens County Democratic Party, House Majority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and the DCCC, and they plan to recommend a candidate to county party leaders, who will vote on a nominee.

Jacbos declined to say who is being considered for the nominee, but there are multiple Democrats already in the race for a full term, including former Rep. Tom Suozzi, former state Sen. Anna Kaplan and Army veteran Austin Cheng. Multiple Democrats said Suozzi is expected to be the party’s pick — but he did wage a bitter, and unsuccessful, primary challenge against Hochul last year.

Asked if there is any hesitation to support Suozzi after he went up against the sitting Democratic governor, Jacobs said, ”It certainly isn’t a plus.”

But he later added, “What we’re going to be looking for, regardless, is the candidate that all of us believe has the best chance, whomever that may be.”

On the Republican side, the Nassau County and Queens County party chairs are expected to select a nominee. Some candidates who are already running for the seat have made their cases, including Air Force veteran Kellen Curry and retired police detective Michael Sapraicone, who are among the top fundraisers.

One GOP strategist said Sapraicone in particular is often mentioned as a potential pick. Sapraicone said in an interview that Nassau County GOP Chairman Joe Cairo encouraged him to jump into the race back in July. The former police detective has already loaned his campaign $300,000, and he didn’t rule out spending more of his money if he is his party’s pick.

“I’m going to have to wait and see where that goes,” Sapraicone said. “We’re going to win.”

Curry also said in a recent interview that he had “an ongoing dialogue” with Cairo and other party leaders, noting he was the first Republican to launch a campaign against Santos back in April.

“We did that because we thought there was a strong possibility we could end up in this situation,” Curry said of a special election. Curry also noted that he has some support from members of Congress, including Texas GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales. He also cited Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, whose endorsement he expects to announce shortly following Santos’ expulsion.

Other Republicans have also been mentioned as potential contenders even though they are not currently running, including state Sen. Jack Martins and Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip. Neither responded to a request for comment.

At least one current GOP candidate bristled at the nominating process.

“Now is not the time to restrict voters’ options and allow a smoke-filled room to hand pick the next GOP nominee,” said Air Force veteran Greg Hach. “If last cycle tells us anything, this is how you end up with deadbeats like Santos.”