Well, we won’t have Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) to dunk on anymore.
Congress expelled Santos, the biographical fabulist turned congressman, on Friday, two weeks after a House Ethics Committee report backed up federal charges accusing him of using campaign funds for personal expenses. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and accused prosecutors of engaging in a “witch hunt” against him.
But with Santos gone, that leaves a hole in the House — and one that, with a narrow Republican majority, both parties are eager to take the opportunity to fill.
Democrats and Republicans have wasted no time preparing for a special election to fill Santos’ highly coveted seat for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which could help determine control of Congress in the 2024 election. The swing district encompasses a stretch of northeast Queens and northwestern Long Island that President Joe Biden carried in 2020 but that helped deliver Republicans the House by electing Santos in 2022.
And that’s to say nothing about the strategic implications of the special election, whose timing and location will provide critical insight into the national political climate ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Though New York’s Electoral College votes are a lock for Biden next November, the district is chock-full of demographic groups that the president needs to cultivate in other states: suburban professionals, Asian Americans and centrist Jewish voters who hold strong pro-Israel views. It is also a test of how well individual Democrats can differentiate themselves from Biden and the national party on issues such as inflation, public safety and immigration, on which Republicans often hold an edge in polling.
So how does the special election process begin?
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has 10 days to announce a special election date for Santos’ seat in the 3rd Congressional District. The date must be 70 to 80 days from her announcement, meaning it will occur in late February.
Then there’s the matter of who will appear on the ballot. Neither major party will hold a special primary election to determine its nominee. Instead, the Republican and Democratic parties of Nassau and Queens counties will decide on their candidates.
Given the stakes, this is not simply a decision that will be made by local party officials. Top state party leaders ― including, on the Democratic side, Hochul and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries ― are reportedly involved in the decision.
Hochul made it clear that her priority is a candidate’s ability to flip the seat for Democrats and, in so doing, make Jeffries, a Brooklynite, the House speaker.
“Job number one for us in New York is to make sure that Hakeem Jeffries is the speaker of the House of Representatives next January,” she told cable news channel NY1 on Friday.
Former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a moderate Democrat who represented the district for three terms before mounting a failed challenge against Hochul for the gubernatorial nomination in 2022, is the favorite to get the nod.
House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, encouraged Suozzi to run and have been privately supportive, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who requested anonymity for professional reasons. The DCCC, which has a policy of not explicitly endorsing in primaries, declined to comment on those private discussions.
Another leading contender, former New York state Sen. Anna Kaplan (D), who is an Iranian Jewish refugee, has already raised more than $1 million for her campaign. She and Suozzi have both been invited to meet with Queens and Nassau county party leaders as they decide whom to pick.
Should Suozzi get the nomination and win the special election, Kaplan ― or any other candidate ― would have an uphill battle challenging him for the nomination in the state’s next congressional primaries in June, which will determine who appears on the general election ballot in November 2024. If Suozzi loses the special election, however, the June primary will lack an incumbent and thus be an open field for Democrats.
Other Democrats who were running for the seat prior to the special election include Austin Cheng, the self-funding CEO of a surgery center; financial attorney Steve Behar; and law professor Will Murphy. Robert Zimmerman, the public relations executive who narrowly lost to Santos in 2022, has not yet made his intentions known.
For their part, the New York Republicans in charge of picking a nominee are reportedly deciding between retired New York Police Department Detective Mike Sapraicone and Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Israeli immigrant to the U.S.
A number of other Republican candidates have already joined the field: Kellen Curry, a Black Air Force veteran and finance professional; Daniel Norber, the Israeli American founder of a moving company; and Greg Hach, a self-funding trial lawyer.
Democrats are at odds over which candidate would have the edge in a contest against the eventual Republican nominee. Suozzi has a centrist profile and experience in the district, albeit one with somewhat different boundaries. But he has disadvantages as well, such as the scrutiny that might arise from his business ties to Jay Jacobs, who, as chair of both the New York State Democratic Committee and the Nassau County Democratic Party, has a big say in selecting the special election nominee.
Kaplan, who has run with the support of the progressive Working Families Party in the past, voted for a 2019 law heavily restricting the use of cash bail and for the budget that contained the state’s congestion pricing system, which is set to tax drivers who want to enter busy parts of Manhattan during working hours. Kaplan lost her state Senate reelection bid in 2022 thanks in no small part to those two votes.
Meanwhile, Republicans expanded their gains on Long Island in the municipal and county elections this past November. For example, a Republican was elected executive of Suffolk County by a wide margin, handing the party control of one of Democrats’ last bastions of power in eastern Long Island in spite of Democrats’ major spending advantage.
Of course, the national implications of the special election merit one asterisk. The current boundaries of New York’s 3rd District, which Biden won by 2 fewer percentage points than its predecessor district and will be in effect for the special election, could change between now and the general election to become more favorable to Democrats: New York Democrats are appealing for the right to modify the current maps. The state’s Court of Appeals is expected to decide on whether they can some time this month.
Regardless, Democrats face headwinds in their bid to flip the seat in February and hold it in November.
“While this is a district Biden won, this is a district that voted for a Republican last cycle and in a part of the state that has been trending away from Democrats and where Democrats still have real challenges,” said Alyssa Cass, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Zak Malamed, who recently withdrew from the 3rd District race. “This is a race Democrats can still win, but anybody who thinks this is a slam dunk hasn’t been paying attention.”
Absent a change in the narrative, the issues that are set to dominate the special election are the cost of living, the migrant crisis and crime, according to Cass. She recommended that instead Democrats nationalize the race, turning it into a referendum on control of the House and voters’ concerns about the extreme tendencies of the national Republican Party.
“The path to making Leader Jeffries into Speaker Jeffries runs through New York state, and that effort becomes a lot easier if you have momentum coming out of the special,” she said.