On paper, Democrats should be able to reclaim New York’s 3rd Congressional district with relative ease.
George Santos, the seat’s scandal-plagued Republican occupant for nearly a year, was ousted from the House on Friday in a historic expulsion vote. The district, anchored on Long Island’s North Shore, with a sliver of Queens included, is filled with the sort of upper-income swing voters who have increasingly rejected Republicans in the Trump era. And President Joe Biden would have handily carried the district in its current configuration.
But despite everything going for Democrats, they’ve faltered on Long Island in recent cycles, a significant regression after years of inroads in what had been a Republican stronghold for generations. And after the Santos debacle, Republicans will look to nominate a serious contender devoid of the ex-congressman’s penchant for headlines.
So the race at this moment appears to be a toss-up, a sentiment also expressed by the Cook Political Report.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has not yet called for a special election, but under state law must do so within 10 days of the vacancy. There will then be 70 to 80 days before an election is held, putting the date for the special election sometime in February 2024.
Here’s why the contest looks to be so competitive:
Despite the nationalization of politics, this remains a local race
While Democrats racked up wins in affluent suburban districts across the United States in the 2022 midterms, Long Island took on a shade of red.
Lee Zeldin, the Republican Long Island congressman who mounted a competitive gubernatorial bid against Hochul, performed strongly in Nassau and Suffolk counties, winning the former by 10 points and the latter by nearly 17 points. Despite Zeldin’s six-point statewide loss, his coattails on the island helped elect Santos, Nick LaLota, and Anthony D’Esposito to open congressional seats. (Rep. Andrew Garbarino, who represents the GOP-leaning 2nd district, was already favored to win.)
Zeldin during his campaign sought to tie Hochul to voter concerns over crime and criminal justice, with a Democratic-led law that ended cash bail in the state proving to be controversial, but especially so on Long Island — which is filled with many active and retired NYPD officers.
Last year, Santos rode the Zeldin wave and defeated his Democratic opponent, businessman Robert Zimmerman, by nearly 8 points.
Abortion and the preservation of democracy may have boosted Democrats in other House districts across the country last year, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the GOP momentum in New York State.
Republicans actually have a bench
Republicans in recent years have begun to claw back power across Long Island.
In 2021, Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, won the Nassau County executive position, ousting then-Democratic incumbent Laura Curran. Republican Anne Donnelly also easily defeated then-Democratic state Sen. Todd Kaminsky in that year’s hotly contested Nassau County district attorney’s election, which centered on the polarizing bail reform law.
Republicans flipped control of the Suffolk County legislature in 2021. And last month, Republican Ed Romaine was handily elected to the county executive post.
For the upcoming special election, local party leaders will choose the nominees who’ll appear on the ballot.
Joe Cairo, the chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee, is currently interviewing roughly 22 individuals for the seat. Names being floated as potential nominees include Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, Nassau County comptroller Elaine Phillips, state Sen. Jack Martins, ex-NYPD detective Mike Sapraicone, and Air Force veteran Kellen Curry.
All of the candidates have the sort of profiles typical of Nassau County Republican elected officials, with ties to the business world, New York City and state law enforcement, or local government.
The one caveat here is that the Democratic nominee could be former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who previously held the seat before Santos and is very familiar to Long Islanders. Suozzi, a former Glen Cove mayor and ex-Nassau County executive, launched two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids in 2006 and in 2022.
In Suozzi’s gubernatorial challenge to Hochul last year, he ran to her right on the issue of crime, hoping to make inroads with voters frustrated by the state’s bail reform. Suozzi came in third place in the Democratic primary, but he’s a known commodity to 3rd district voters and likely the strongest candidate that the party could field.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who represents a Brooklyn-based district, worked earlier in the fall to convince Suozzi to attempt another House run, according to The New York Times. And Jay Jacobs, the state and Nassau County Democratic Party chair, has informed associates that the former congressman will be the probable choice, per the Times report.
Former Democratic state Sen. Anna Kaplan, who had already been running to succeed Santos, remains in the 2024 contest. The ex-lawmaker is offering a more progressive candidacy that that of the moderate Suozzi, whom she had already been attacking over abortion rights even before Santos was removed from the House.
No matter what, both parties have solid candidates that they can field for the special election. But Republicans can’t be discounted in the district given the current political shifts on Long Island.
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