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National parties gear up for a massive battle to win George Santos’ seat

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George Santos’ eviction from Congress on Friday kicks off a special election that could be an early indicator of which party has the upper hand in the battle for the House next year.

The race will play out on Long Island, the site of Democrats’ most excruciating 2022 faceplant and the place where Republicans effectively weaponized rising crime rates. The outcome could portend Democratic strength in 2024 — or signal that Republicans’ ascendance there is not a fluke and that the pall of Santos won’t threaten their gains. Democrats, at least, are expected to pour tens of millions into efforts to win back the seat and earn redemption.

“It’s going to be the spotlight that everyone is looking at,” said Rep. Greg Meeks, who as Queens Democratic Party chair will help choose a nominee. “We were surprised when we lost the seat in the first place.”

Party bosses have already begun vetting prospective candidates, and they will select their respective nominees ahead of a special election that is expected in February. Democrats appear likely to select Tom Suozzi, the district’s former incumbent who retired from Congress in 2022 to run an unsuccessful primary campaign against Gov. Kathy Hochul. Armed with name ID in a prohibitively expensive media market, he would be a formidable candidate.

The shortlist for the GOP nominee includes Mike Sapraicone, a retired NYPD detective, and Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, according to people familiar with the selection process granted anonymity to disclose internal party deliberations. Sapraicone has a long background as a cop and has some ability to self-fund, while Pilip has a compelling personal story that’s especially timely given the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.

“All eyes are going to be on New York, District Three,” said Sapraicone, who said he has urged Nassau County GOP Chair Joe Cairo to select him. “The chairman knows he needs to win this election and how important it is to the United States, to the Republican Party.”

The midterms in New York last year were a Democratic nightmare, a rare dark spot in an election cycle where the party overperformed. Had Democrats held onto more seats in the blue state of New York, they might have defied the odds and kept their House majority. Losing Santos’ seat was particularly galling because President Joe Biden carried the district by nearly 9 points in 2020.

Republicans tore through Long Island, picking up Santos’s seat and that of Rep. Anthony D’Esposito and cementing total control of the congressional districts there. Three more GOP candidates captured Democratic-leaning territory upstate. All ran heavily on crime-themed messaging.

Democrats spent much of the off-year sifting through what went wrong, especially on Long Island, where Republicans yoked their opponents to the unpopular Hochul and rising crime rates. The special election will offer a chance to test their findings. Party leaders have been working through messaging on abortion, crime and an unpopular cap on local and state tax deductions.

“There have been many, many conversations and autopsies and therapy sessions,” said retired Rep. Steve Israel, a former House campaign chair who once represented a version of Santos’ district. “The one thing that’s clear is that Long Island has, up to now, been disappointing to Democrats, and it’s going to be hard to win back the House without reversing that.”

The party’s midterm post-mortem looked at areas for improvement. Part of it critiqued voter turnout in diverse communities in the district, according to Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).

Meeks, who also participated in the autopsy, said that Democrats may have focused too much on issues of national significance like abortion rights at the expense of local issues, including the state and local tax deduction (SALT) and rising crime.

“That was what we led with because we knew how significant and important it was and it still is,” Meeks said. “But we’ve also got to emphasize on top of that, what the basic local issues are.”

Some of the 2022 baggage will be gone next year. Hochul may have been a drag on Democrats in 2022, when she was running against former Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who represented Long Island in Congress and offered down-ballot coattails. But it will be hard for Republicans to yoke Suozzi to her — assuming he is the nominee — after he challenged her last cycle.

And in Congress, Suozzi cut a more moderate profile and had been part of a group of House Democrats who had pushed hard to include a repeal of the SALT deduction cap in their party-line social spending package.

“I’m with Tom Suozzi. We like Tom Suozzi,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who called him a “law and order candidate.”

The New York districts have also been of particular interest to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and his team. Top Democrats have vowed to dedicate considerable resources toward recapturing the Biden-won districts there, some of which are in Jeffries’ own backyard. House Majority PAC, a Democratic group with ties to Jeffries, is also closely watching the race.

“House Majority PAC plans to play a significant role in the NY-03 special election, and we will do whatever it takes to flip this district blue,” the group’s president, Mike Smith, said in a statement.

None of the likely GOP candidates have Suozzi’s name ID — a priceless commodity in the prohibitively expensive New York media market.

In a statement, the National Republican Congressional Committee said it would be “monitoring the district closely in concert with state and county parties” but made no overt commitment to spend. Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the committee, slammed Democrats’ attempts to gerrymander the state.

For Republicans, the race provides a real chance for them to continue their dominance on Long Island. Local elections in 2023 were a resounding success for them. They won control of the Long Beach City Council, the North Hempstead Town Board and the Suffolk County executive.

“Republicans control pretty much every bit of government from the city line all the way to Montauk,” said D’Esposito, who flipped a Democratic seat on Long Island last fall. “It’s clearly no fluke. Nassau County is a bright shade of red.”

But playing in a special election comes at a heavy price for Republicans. They will need to defend several New York districts in fall 2024, and any spending in the special election reduces the funds available later that year.

Plus, voters could hold Republicans responsible for Santos’ laundry list of alleged crimes and falsehoods.

“It makes it tougher,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the chair of the NRCC, conceded of Santos’ legacy, though he cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from a special election held months before November.

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.