Before the revelations, George Santos was the type of fresh face the Republican Party would have put front and center. The representative-elect is Latino, openly gay and just 34 years old. And by winning the election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District last year, he appeared to have cracked the code to succeeding as a Republican on Democratic-leaning turf.
But now, Republicans seem to want nothing to do with Santos. Last month, the world learned that he fabricated much of his biography and may have broken U.S. and Brazilian law. Santos now admits that he did not graduate from college, never worked at Citigroup or Goldman Sachs, does not own 13 properties and is not Jewish. In addition, he is still in arrears for unpaid rent from several years ago, did not fully disclose the source of his income on his personal financial disclosure forms and was accused of check fraud as a 19-year-old in Brazil.
All these questions about Santos’s past have begotten other questions — about his place in Congress and political future. Here’s our best shot at answering three of them.
Would Santos have won if voters had known the truth?
Many people believe Santos was elected under false pretenses. Some parts of his résumé were disputed before the election by the North Shore Leader and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But the story only got widespread attention when The New York Times blew the lid off it in December.
Still, it’s unclear whether he would have lost if his lies had been exposed earlier. We know that, theoretically, the district has enough Democratic voters to have defeated Santos. According to Daily Kos Elections, President Biden carried New York’s 3rd District1 in 2020 by 8.2 percentage points. But many of those voters were nowhere to be found in 2022.
It turns out, Santos didn’t do unusually well for a Republican in the district. The district voted red up and down the ballot. According to data from Democratic strategist Benjamin Rosenblatt and the New York City Board of Elections, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin carried the 3rd District by 12 points.2 And Republican Senate candidate Joe Pinion carried the district by 4 points.3 And Pinion’s margin within the district represents a scenario where the Republican candidate was much weaker than the Democratic candidate: Pinion raised a pitiful $589,000 for the race, while his opponent, powerful Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, raised $41.8 million. Of course, Pinion didn’t have Santos’s allegations swirling around him.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver previously calculated that scandals, on average, shave 9 points off sitting House members’ margins in general elections and 13 points in competitive districts. Santos’s winning margin in 2022 was just 7.5 points.4 But a scandal’s impact varies quite a bit from election to election. So we can’t just subtract 9 points from that margin and assume that would have been the result if voters had been aware of his deceptions. Historically, some scandal-plagued candidates have underperformed by more than 30 points, while others have actually done better than expected. What’s more, in this era of high partisan polarization, scandals may hurt candidates less than they used to.
Will Santos resign?
Of course, the reality is that Santos was elected and took his seat in the House this week. Many people have called on him to resign, but historical trends suggest he may try to ride the scandal out.
I maintain a database of political scandals and their impacts on politicians’ careers. Since 2017, 87 federal and statewide office-holders have been credibly accused of illegal or unethical activity, and only 17 have resigned.5 Another two were removed from office, though this probably won’t happen to Santos: It takes a two-thirds vote of the House to expel a representative, and it’s unlikely that dozens of Republicans will vote to potentially shrink their already-narrow majority.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Santos will get off scot-free. Another nine of these scandal-plagued candidates chose not to run again,6 and another 23 of them lost reelection or failed in a bid for higher office. Santos has reportedly told local Republican leaders that he will not seek reelection. But if he were to run again, Santos would face a brutal reelection campaign in 2024 in his Biden-voting district.
Some scandals are more severe than others and may be more likely to lead to dire consequences for a person’s political career. But let’s look at politicians in situations similar to Santos’s. At least three other sitting or aspiring U.S. House members have been accused of embellishing their résumé in recent years.7 First, former Rep. Steve Watkins claimed to have founded a company he merely worked for and was accused of voter fraud and making unwanted sexual advances. He lost reelection. Former Rep. John Ratcliffe falsely claimed he prosecuted a terrorist case as a U.S. attorney. As a result, he had to initially withdraw from consideration to be director of national intelligence under former President Donald Trump. But Trump nominated him again and he won Senate confirmation. And then there’s Sara Jacobs, who said she was a State Department “policymaker” even though she was a contractor who did not make actual policy. She won her election and is still in Congress today.
Who would win a special election to replace Santos?
If Santos does resign (or is expelled), a special election would be held in New York’s 3rd District to choose a successor. Under New York law, the governor must announce the date of the special election within 10 days of the vacancy, and the election itself would be between 70 and 80 days after that. So if Santos were to resign today, the special election would be in late March or early April.
Ahead of the 2022 election, New York’s 3rd District had a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean8 of D+4. That means, in a theoretically neutral political environment where the nation is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, we would expect Democrats to win the seat by 4 points. But of course, D+4 is still highly competitive, and it wouldn’t take much for Republicans to win. (Just ask Santos himself — or Zeldin, or Pinion.) In November, the national political environment leaned Republican by about 2 points,9 and it may shift toward Republicans or Democrats by the time a special election is held.
In addition, Republicans or Democrats could overperform by running a strong campaign, which could come down to the quality of the nominees. Unlike some other states, New York doesn’t hold primaries for special elections; instead, leaders in each party will choose their nominees. That means each candidate will probably be a party insider — someone unlikely to have the same baggage as Santos or the other flawed candidates Republicans nominated in the 2022 midterms. That could lead to a highly competitive, tooth-and-nail fight where neither party begins with the advantage. Of course, if Santos does resign, we’ll have much more to say about the special election once we know when it will be and who is running.
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