Even as Rep. George Santos (R-NY) refuses to resign amid a dizzying swirl of scandals and ongoing investigations, his recent indictment suggests he could be pushed out of office before the end of his term, triggering a possible special election to fill a vacant Long Island swing seat.
But while a special election seems increasingly likely at this stage, the race remains highly unpredictable — and it could become even more convoluted should Santos leave office sooner than later. That’s because, if a special election were to be called, party leaders would choose the nominees themselves, adding uncertainty to a regularly scheduled primary that is already well underway, with five Democrats and two Republicans having filed to run in 2024.
“This is Alice in Wonderland and nobody knows what’s going to happen,” a longtime Republican operative in Nassau County told Jewish Insider. “For both sides, it’s very frustrating.”
Democratic leaders have begun laying the groundwork to pick a candidate if Santos is expelled from Congress or takes a plea deal requiring he step down, according to sources familiar with the process. The conversations have included Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the House minority leader; Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party; and Jay Jacobs, who chairs the Nassau County Democratic Party — all of whom are said to wield varying levels of influence in the decision-making process.
In recent weeks, the three party leaders have spoken with former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), a moderate Democrat who gave up the seat now held by Santos to mount a failed campaign for governor. People familiar with the former congressman’s thinking told JI that Suozzi is leaning toward accepting the nomination for the Nassau County-based district if it is offered, even if he is otherwise unlikely to enter the primary. He declined to comment, and Jeffries, Meeks and Jacobs did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, some party insiders contend that Suozzi’s potential nomination is hardly a guarantee, largely because of his sour relationship with Gov. Kathy Hochul, whom Suozzi aggressively challenged for the gubernatorial nomination last year. The Democratic governor has been absent from recent conversations with Suozzi, according to a source close to the congressman. “A lot of people have said the governor could potentially veto it or stand in the way,” said one Democratic insider who is tuned into the process.
A spokesperson for Hochul didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“There’s drama,” a Hochul ally who asked for anonymity to speak candidly said of the dynamic with Suozzi. “Talking practically, do I think that that drama inhibits a race if he’s the only viable candidate? I’d like to think not.” But, the person added, another “elephant in the room” is that there are lingering hard feelings among some party activists who believe the seat would still be in Democratic hands if Suozzi hadn’t run for governor.
Others, however, see an upside to a Suozzi rerun. “Tom Suozzi is the only proven vote-getter in that district and was a great member of Congress,” David Greenfield, the chief executive of the Met Council and a former city councilman who is active in local politics, told JI. “If he wants to run, the Democratic party should clear the deck for him.”
If Suozzi isn’t chosen, people familiar with the early stages of the nomination process suggested that Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish Democrat who lost to Santos in the midterms and has been attending events in the district, is another candidate to watch. He declined to comment when reached by JI on Monday. “It would be very surprising to me if there was a special and one of those two people wasn’t the nominee,” said a Democratic strategist who is following the race.
Meanwhile, some Democrats who have entered the regularly scheduled race are also planning for the possibility of a special election.
In a recent interview with JI, Anna Kaplan, a Jewish Democrat and former state senator who lost her bid for reelection last cycle, said she has spoken with local party leaders as well as Jeffries’ and Hochul’s offices. “I believe I am the strongest candidate, and I’ve made the case for myself and for my candidacy,” she said. “We’re going to wait and see.”
Zak Malamed, a Jewish Democrat and nonprofit leader who launched his campaign last week, said he is optimistic about his chances no matter what happens. “We’re building a campaign that is going to be prepared to win regardless of the circumstances,” he said in an interview with JI on Monday. The biggest risk to the special election process is nominating somebody who has been “rejected by the district,” he cautioned.
The remaining Democratic primary candidates include Joshua Lafazan, a Nassau County legislator who ran last cycle; Will Murphy, a law professor; and Darius Radzius, a local reporter who has filed to run but hasn’t announced a campaign.
The Republican field, which has yet to fully take shape, now includes military veteran Kellen Curry and Philip Grillo, a Republican from Queens who was charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots. Among others who have been named as possible candidates are state Sen. Jack Martins, who defeated Kaplan in the midterms; Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Jewish Republican and Nassau County legislator; and Elaine Phillips, the Nassau County comptroller.
“Depending on who you talk to there are over a dozen people who are interested,” said a GOP activist in the district. “I do not see anything happening very quickly. It’s really a wait-and-see type of game. This is like going to the dentist for both political parties. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to go through this. But they’re going to have to, and they’re going to just have to get it over with.”
Joe Cairo, the GOP chairman in Nassau County who has called for Santos’ resignation, holds the most power to pick the nominee for a special election, in conjunction with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). “From our point of view, we would work with whoever is picked,” said a GOP strategist involved in House races. “It really would be driven from the ground.”
McCarthy has shown he isn’t so eager as local party leaders to immediately push Santos from office, even if he suggested last week that a House Ethics panel should move “rapidly” on a resolution calling for the congressman’s expulsion.
Democratic insiders suspect that Republicans could move to expel Santos from Congress after the debt limit negotiations are finalized, likely in the coming weeks. “The conventional wisdom is, when the debt ceiling is behind us, McCarthy will have no use for Santos,” said Jon Reinish, a partner in the New York City office of Mercury Public Affairs.
Another Democratic strategist speculated that Republican House members on Long Island may be pushing for a special election this summer to secure incumbency before a possible redistricting battle that could result in a more favorable seat for Democrats.
Still, one senior member of New York’s Democratic House delegation, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), is doubtful there will be a special election at all, according to a person informed of his thinking. The congressman doesn’t think McCarthy will move to expel Santos because “he needs his vote,” the person said. “Ethics doesn’t move fast.”
As for the existing primary field, Nadler “would be open [to] supporting” Kaplan, whom he has previously endorsed, again, the person told JI, clarifying that the congressman isn’t “ready to make an endorsement” because “it’s early” in the race.
Whether a special election is held or not, Reinish said that “Jewish voters will be right at the center of the process,” citing a bitterness among members of both parties over Santos’ false claims to Jewish heritage. “On a playing field in which George Santos took advantage of and falsely claimed to be a member of the Jewish community and that sort of negativity and toxicity, I think that’s going to really weigh on Jewish voters’ minds,” he explained. “Jewish voters will be looking possibly toward a Jewish candidate.”
In conversation with JI, Kaplan, a Persian Jew who fled the Islamic Revolution in Iran, drew a pointed contrast with Santos, who has misleadingly claimed that his maternal grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Europe during World War II.
“I am the Jewish refugee that fled Iran,” Kaplan insisted. “My parents had to make the very difficult decision when I was 13 to put me on a plane because they feared for my life. And as an immigrant, as a Jewish person, as a woman, I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of different groups in this district. They’re very excited and energized for me being the candidate. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that we unseat George Santos.”
Santos, who announced his reelection campaign last month, has continued to claim he is Jewish, despite genealogical records that show he has no familial connection to Judaism.
In a text message on Monday, the embattled congressman dismissed a question from JI about whether he expects a special election to take place. “I don’t comment on speculations and you shouldn’t report on speculations as if they were news,” he said.