New York 3: Santos Charges Increases Odds of Special Election

by Jacob Rubashkin May 10, 2023 · 1:29 PM EDT

Republican Congressman George Santos was charged with 13 federal crimes on Tuesday morning, increasing the likelihood of a special election in New York’s 3rd District. 

The Justice Department alleges that Santos solicited and then pocketed political contributions intended for a fake super PAC supporting his successful 2022 campaign. The indictment also alleges Santos lied about being unemployed to collect state funds and falsified his House personal financial disclosure.

The odds of Santos returning to Congress for a second term have always been low. His well-documented fabrications — about his business history, personal life, and ancestry — have been an embarrassment for Republicans since they came to light last December, and have turned the entire local Republican establishment against him. 

A January Siena College poll found his favorability rating in the single digits. In the poll, just 24 percent of 2022 voters admitted to voting for Santos, despite the Republican actually winning 54 percent of the vote, meaning that more than half of his former supporters would not even acknowledge their previous support for him.

But a federal indictment raises the likelihood that Santos will not even finish out a first term, either because he resigns from Congress or is expelled (as several members of his own party have called for). 

If that happens, a special election will likely take place to fill the seat, and Republicans could have a tough time retaining control of the Nassau County district.

The 3rd District did swing Republican in 2022, voting for Santos by 8 points. But the political environment in New York last year was highly favorable to Republicans, with gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin coming within 6 points of winning statewide and dominating the 3rd District by 12 points, 56-44 percent. 

There’s no guarantee that the environment will work in Republicans’ favor again, given the underlying political lean of the seat (Biden would have carried it by 8 points in 2020, 53-45 percent).

Even though he wouldn’t be on the ballot, Santos would loom large over any special election, with Republicans having to regain the trust of voters after backing his candidacy two cycles in a row. There’s also the Trump effect. The former president is deeply unpopular in the district, but has only become more prominent in voters’ minds as he re-establishes himself as the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination and faces numerous legal challenges himself.

Republicans’ prospects in a special election are also dependent on who Democrats nominate.  Democrats could lure former Rep. Tom Suozzi back into the fray. The former congressman, who gave up this seat to run for governor last year, would be a formidable candidate and likely the preference of Democrats in Washington, DC. Several other Democrats have filed for the regular 2024 election, most notably Nassau County legislator/2022 Democratic candidate Josh Lafazan, and former state Sen. Anna Kaplan. Both of them could pivot to running in a special election, as could 2022 nominee Robert Zimmerman, who is considering running again in 2024.

On the Republican side, former JP Morgan Chase analyst Kellen Curry is the only announced challenger to Santos for the 2024 election, but given his lack of ties to the district he would face an uphill climb to receive the nod in a special election. State Sen. Jack Martins, who narrowly lost to Suozzi in 2016, is a potential contender, as is Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip.

Under New York law, in the event of a special election county party leaders — not voters in a primary — would choose their respective nominees. 

The 2021 law governing special congressional elections in New York mandates a special election only if a vacancy occurs before July 1, 2024. So if Santos were to leave office after that date but before the end of his term, his seat would remain vacant. Given how slowly the justice system can operate, that’s a real possibility, especially if Santos takes the case to trial.

We’ve had the race rated as a Toss-up with the expectation it would be an open seat race (without Santos on the ballot) in the November 2024 general election. But Democrats would probably start a special election with an advantage.