The Impact of the Santos Succession Race on the 2024 Election

The Impact of the Santos Succession Race on the 2024 Election

A pivotal special election in New York's upscale district to succeed ex-Rep George Santos will unveil crucial insights into suburban dynamics shaping the 2024 election

The upcoming special election to fill the seat left vacant by former Republican Rep. George Santos in a well-educated and affluent district outside of New York City will provide key insights into the political dynamics at play in suburban areas that could have a significant impact on the outcome of the 2024 election.

The resistance to the GOP during the Donald Trump era in white-collar suburban communities has allowed Democrats to outperform expectations in both the 2022 midterms and subsequent elections through 2023. However, local Democrats are cautioning that winning the Santos seat may be more challenging for the party than many national observers anticipate, despite Santos winning the district in 2022 despite President Joe Biden carrying it two years prior.

The Long Island suburbs of New York City have been the biggest exception to the trend of growing Democratic suburban strength in recent years. This includes the 3rd Congressional District, formerly held by Santos, who was expelled last week by the House of Representatives and faces 23 felony criminal counts, mostly for misusing campaign funds.

The Impact of the Santos Succession Race on the 2024 Election

Rep. George Santos leaves the US Capitol after the House voted to expel him from Congress on December 1, 2023.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

The competition for Santos' New York seat is intensifying as Hochul gets ready to announce the special election date. Since 2021, the GOP has been making steady progress in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, with increasing concern about crime, immigration, and inflation, including rising housing costs. The upcoming special election in February will gauge the Republicans' strength on these issues and test whether Democrats can regain ground on Long Island by portraying the Trump-era GOP as too extreme and vowing to protect legal abortion, strategies that have been successful for Democrats in similar areas.

Former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who previously represented the seat, described the upcoming special election as a local matter with national implications, citing the need for both parties to navigate the challenges it presents. Despite the Democratic party's recent strong showings in national elections, they have struggled in the last three election cycles on Long Island, while Republicans have successfully appealed to voters on issues such as crime and immigration. On the other hand, the district is known for its strong pro-choice stance and rejection of extremism.

The recent surge of the GOP on Long Island reflects a return to historical trends, with the area growing after World War II due to its affordability and spacious living options in comparison to New York City. Additionally, it developed as a "White flight" suburb, attracting white families concerned about crime in the city and opposing racial integration, particularly in schools.

Nassau and Suffolk are now more racially diverse than in the past, but still exhibit significant segregation in housing and schools, according to Stanley Feldman, a political science professor at Stonybrook University. With over 120 independent school districts, it is relatively easy to draw lines around minority populations, resulting in predominantly White schools.

Following the social and racial movements of the 1960s, Republican dominance in politics was evident in both counties for several decades. The GOP controlled the county executive position in Nassau and Suffolk from the 1970s through the 1990s and consistently achieved large presidential margins. The Republican Party in Nassau County, in particular, became a strong political force, serving as the political base for Al D'Amato, who defied New York's overall Democratic trend and won three terms in the US Senate starting in 1980.

The Republican hold on Long Island weakened as the suburbs outside the South shifted towards the Democratic Party, a trend sparked by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. During the Clinton administration, a number of affluent white-collar suburbs near major cities - such as Oakland County in Michigan, Montgomery and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania, and Bergen County in New Jersey - leaned toward the Democrats, largely due to social issues like abortion and gun control. In the 21st century, similar demographically suburban areas in Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina initially, and more recently in Georgia and Arizona, have followed a similar path. These areas have become crucial to Democratic success in both presidential and congressional elections, with the party increasingly relying on suburban House seats.

The Impact of the Santos Succession Race on the 2024 Election

Rep. George Santos speaks during a press conference outside the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on November 30, 2023.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

After deceit and turmoil, Santos's removal may threaten the Republican House majority. During the Barack Obama administration, Nassau and Suffolk consistently aligned with this trend. Democratic presidential nominees won both counties in every election from 1996 to 2012, and Democrats also made gains in local elections.

Long Island has not been as decisively Democratic as similar suburbs. Obama's margins in both counties were never as large as those for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Even though Hillary Clinton won Nassau in 2016, she lost Suffolk to Trump. In 2020, Biden made improvements, winning Nassau with a 10-point margin and narrowly beating Trump in Suffolk.

Since then, Long Island Democrats have been on a downhill trend. Republicans took back the county executive seat in Nassau in 2021 and won the Suffolk position in a landslide in November. In 2022, GOP gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin carried Nassau County by 10 points and Suffolk by 18 in his close loss to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. The GOP swept all four of the area's congressional seats in 2022, with Santos, a relatively unknown candidate, winning by about 8 points in a seat that Biden had carried by a similar margin just two years earlier.

Jim McLaughlin, a pollster who worked for both Trump and Santos' 2022 campaign, stated that the GOP gains across Long Island since Biden's election can be attributed to common concerns about affordability, crime, and safety. "Voters believe that Democrats are not effectively addressing these important issues, so they are turning to Republicans," he said.

The erosion of support in Nassau County, including the district formerly held by Santos, is a major concern for Democrats. Suffolk County, located farther from New York City, reflects the typical characteristics of Trump country: largely affluent and predominantly made up of non-college educated White residents, who are staunch supporters of Trump.

Nassau surpasses Suffolk in both median home prices by nearly $125,000 and education levels, as per Census Bureau data. Santos's former district is an example of the kind of socially progressive, affluent area that Democrats have come to rely on, with a majority of residents holding at least a four-year college degree and a median household income of nearly $130,000, according to the census.

In the 2022 race for the 3rd District, Democrats cited crime, in particular, as the main factor in Santos's surprisingly decisive victory over Democrat Robert Zimmerman, a marketing and communications consultant. Zimmerman has confided in friends that while campaigning, the most frequent issue he was asked about was the legislation passed by Hochul and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature that eliminated cash bail.

Earlier this year, New York Democrats made changes to their bail reforms, and it is believed that concerns about crime may not be as significant in 2022. However, there is growing anxiety about illegal immigration in New York City, as the city faces an influx of undocumented migrants. Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has been calling for more financial assistance from both the state and federal government, and has echoed Republican criticisms of President Biden's management of the border.

Recent polling has shown that Democrats in general, and specifically Biden, are in a precarious position on Long Island. A poll conducted by Siena College in November, in partnership with Newsday, revealed that Biden's approval ratings were 41% in Nassau and 36% in Suffolk. The survey also found that Trump is now leading the president by 7 points in Nassau and 14 in Suffolk, despite Biden carrying each county in 2020. Additionally, the poll indicated that about three-fifths of voters in both counties believe that crime is increasing in the state and that migrants are creating more of a burden than a benefit for New York. The poll also showed that big majorities in both counties are more supportive of Israel than the Palestinians, at a time when it is perceived that the GOP is more unconditionally supportive of Israel's actions in Gaza than Democrats.

Local Democrats are concerned that the upcoming race will be more challenging than anticipated, as they believe the revitalized Nassau County GOP has a stronger organization to mobilize voters in what is expected to be a low turnout special election during the Northeast winter.

Despite this, Democrats believe they have tactical advantages, as the scandal involving Santos has tarnished the GOP brand in the district. Local Republicans called for his removal, but the GOP House leadership protected him in an effort to maintain their narrow majority. According to Ellie Dougherty, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, voters will be reminded of the GOP's protection of Santos, which may work in favor of Democrats winning back the seat in the special election.

The candidates themselves are an important factor, as they will be chosen by party leaders. It is highly likely that Democrats will nominate Tom Suozzi, who previously held the seat and served two terms as the Nassau County executive. The party leaders were expected to announce their decision on Tuesday, but have indicated that the choice will not be revealed until later in the week. Suozzi's previous challenge against Hochul for the party's gubernatorial nomination may give him some protection against GOP attacks, and his name recognition gives him a significant advantage over potential Republican candidates. According to Feldman, Suozzi's significant name recognition and moderate Democratic views make him a strong contender.

The wildcard in the race is how abortion will factor in. Like in other major suburban areas, most Long Island voters support legal abortion. While Zimmerman emphasized the issue in his ads during the 2022 race, abortion didn't hurt Santos as much as GOP candidates in similar districts did. Republican pollster McLaughlin believes this is because in the "people's republic of New York," voters are aware that Democrats have all the power and their abortion rights are safe.

Privately, local Democrats agree with McLaughlin's assessment of how the issue played out in 2022. The real question is whether the threat to abortion rights will be more significant to New York voters now, especially given the potential for Republicans to win unified control of Congress and the White House next year and pass a national ban on the procedure.

Democrats have consistently shown strong performance in areas like Santos' old district through 2023. They have maintained or even expanded their margins in state Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as in the battle for control of the Virginia House and Senate. This trend follows the 2022 pattern, where Democrats won seven out of nine Senate and gubernatorial races in key swing states, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, thanks to solid support from well-educated suburban areas.

In these successful Democratic campaigns, support for legal abortion and concerns about the threat to basic rights from GOP candidates aligned with Trump outweighed discontent over the economy, crime, immigration, and Biden's overall performance. The upcoming election to replace Santos will once again put these competing factors to the test.

The unique politics of Long Island make it hard to predict how other suburbs will vote next year, and even a win for either side wouldn't necessarily indicate future outcomes. If Republicans hold the seat in February, a legal effort by Democrats to redraw the states congressional district lines could shift the district back toward them in the November 2024 election. However, if Democrats are unable to recapture a district that Biden won comfortably, it will likely increase anxiety about the president's position in the 2024 election.