George Santos’s departure from Congress offers at least one thing beneficial to his legacy: A special election that will provide a case study of the current mood in a key House district.
Top political minds are eyeing the Feb. 13 special election to replace the disgraced, expelled Santos for signs of momentum in either direction heading into the November general election.
If Republicans can hold the seat, they believe that it shows the issues that led to big gains in 2022 in some traditionally Democratic areas remain in their favor, particularly with President Biden’s sagging popularity and voters not crediting him for economic gains over the past year.
Add to that the mushrooming migrant crisis at the southern border, which has now been felt in numerous metropolitan areas, and perceptions of rising crime in cities despite national trends showing a drop.
“I love the issue set for this election for this district: Crime, inflation. You know, the Democrats have a problem on the issue side,” Rep. Richard Hudson (N.C.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters.
But Democrats see another chance to extend their string of victories following the June 2022 Supreme Court ruling that overturned abortion rights and sent the issue back to state governments. That motivated many Americans, a majority of whom favor abortion rights, and helped propel Democrats to two wins in special elections two months later, a strong 2022 midterm showing, as well as victories last year in key races from Wisconsin to Virginia and Kentucky.
“Democrats defied political gravity,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said.
Republicans started last year with 222 seats in the House, a four-seat cushion on purely party-line votes. But Santos was expelled last month and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) retired on Dec. 31 after getting booted as House speaker. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) is stepping down on Jan. 21 for an academic post.
If a Democrat wins, the party will hold 214 seats in the House. Republicans could afford to lose only one or two votes on partisan legislation, depending on full attendance. Democrats would need a net gain of just four seats in November to claim the majority outright.
In separate news conferences a couple of hours apart on Thursday, Hudson and Jeffries spoke about how national trends will dominate the races that decide the majority, but certain local factors and candidate quality could turn some contests into the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.
“It’s a knife fight in a dark alley for the majority,” Hudson said inside the NRCC headquarters a couple blocks from the Capitol.
The days of the mega-majorities — like the 258 seats that Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) controlled as Democratic speaker in 2009 or the 247 seats John A. Boehner (Ohio) held as the GOP speaker in 2015 — are probably gone for the foreseeable future.
Just 35 districts, after the most recent redrawing of congressional districts, fall in territory where the 2020 presidential margin between Biden and Donald Trump was less than 5 percentage points.
Jeffries, speaking in the House studio, said that the string of major Democratic wins, from August 2022 through November 2023, demonstrated that the party’s momentum went beyond the abortion rights ruling by showing voters trusted Democrats more than far-right Republicans.
This race will have plenty of unique characteristics.
First, there’s Santos, whose upset victory in 2022 was quickly overshadowed once his serial fabricating lifestyle got exposed. Then came multiple investigations that produced federal corruption charges and revealed internal House violations that prompted his expulsion on a bipartisan vote last month, only the third member of the post-Civil War era to be voted out of office.
Some Democratic insiders think that voters in Long Island and Queens will simply look for a candidate they can trust, someone who will not embarrass them. That’s why they handed the nomination to Thomas Suozzi, who represented the district for three terms before running unsuccessfully for governor in 2022.
He’s a familiar face who won his last two House elections by double-digit margins, so Jeffries first noted that “local issues” would be decisive in the race, positioning Suozzi almost in the role of incumbent trying to deflect a lesser-known challenger.
“Which candidate, in my view, is best positioned to deliver for the people of Queens and Nassau County,” Jeffries said of the decisive factors. “Tom Suozzi has a track record of bipartisan problem solving on issues of importance.”
Republicans tapped Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian Jewish woman who was raised in Israel, served in their army and moved to Long Island in 2005.
Biden won by 8.2 percentage points here, according to the Daily Kos breakdown of presidential performance in all 435 districts.
But Republicans cannot simply brush this off as “tough territory,” as Hudson described the district. This is exactly the type of seat they need to defend if they want to keep the majority.
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates almost two dozen seats as pure “tossups,” but those GOP seats are in similarly tough terrain like the old Santos district.
In 13 of the Republican-held tossups, Biden won in 12 districts, including seven by at least 8 percentage points. Of those 10 Democratic seats, Biden won in seven.
In large part, the House majority rests on Republicans outperforming the usual trends in New York and California, where crime and inflation outweighed other concerns in 2022. In recent months, the border crisis grabbed attention as New York Mayor Eric Adams has complained to Biden administration officials about caring for tens of thousands of migrants now living in the city.
And with such Democratic dominance in their state capitals, New York and California voters did not respond to the abortion issue in 2022 like voters in some Midwest states, where Republican gubernatorial candidates and legislators threatened to impose draconian prohibitions.
Hudson believes that most Republican lawmakers could properly defend their abortion positions — polls have shown greater support for restrictions later in pregnancies — but they have to spell out that view to voters.
“The voters think the Republican position is like, ‘We’ll throw you in jail if you get an abortion.’ And so that’s why we need to explain what our position is and then explain what the Democrat position is,” he said.
And Hudson is fine if some of his 17 GOP incumbents in districts that favored Biden, along with challengers running in Biden districts, decline to endorse Trump if he secures the Republican nomination.
“There’s no litmus test. I’m here to grow the majority,” Hudson said.
Pilip has not endorsed Trump but said she would support whoever the GOP nominee is. She has said she would not support the federal abortion ban some GOP lawmakers are touting, but Democrats are trying to pin her down on other specifics.
Their aides followed Pilip during her recent visit to Washington for fundraising, capturing video of a GOP aide blocking them and not letting her state her position on whether she would vote to codify Roe v. Wade.
Pilip represents a continuation of the identity politics House Republicans have honed since the 2020 elections. That’s when — despite Biden’s large popular vote margin of more than 7 million votes — the House GOP netted more than 10 seats and nearly claimed the majority.
Every GOP candidate who defeated a Democratic incumbent that year was a woman, a person of color or a military veteran; Pilip checks all three boxes (with military service in Israel).
“That’s really been the playbook for the last two cycles. And so we’re using that same formula,” Hudson said.
Republicans need to have “compelling” candidates in these Democratic-leaning districts and hope they can keep the issues focused on the border and inflation, he added.
Jeffries, instead, is betting that the issues continue to reflect the political reality of the last 18 months, that Biden’s poor polling is an anomaly that does not capture how voters feel about him and Democrats.
“That has already been resolved,” he said, recalling the predictions of political doom in fall 2022. “We were told that the red wave was coming, because of concerns related to the economy and President Biden’s unpopularity. The exact opposite happened.”