What the race to replace Santos will tell us about the 2024 election

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The coming special election to replace Republican former Rep. George Santos in a well-educated and affluent district outside New York City will offer important clues about the political crosscurrents shaping the suburban areas that could decide the 2024 election.

Resistance to the Donald Trump-era GOP in white-collar suburban communities has allowed Democrats to perform much better than expected both in the 2022 midterms and elections through 2023. But local Democrats are warning that the Santos seat – which he won in 2022 despite President Joe Biden carrying the district two years earlier – may be tougher for the party to recapture than many national observers expect.

That’s because the biggest exception to the trend of growing Democratic suburban strength in recent years has been the Long Island suburbs of New York City. That 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.

Since 2021, the GOP has steadily gained ground in both Nassau (the core of Santos’ former district) and Suffolk counties on Long Island, largely around concerns about crime, immigration and inflation, including the high cost of housing. The special election to replace Santos, likely to be held in February, will measure how powerful those issues remain for Republicans. It willl also test whether Democrats can reverse their decline on Long Island by presenting the Trump-era GOP as too extreme and pledging to defend legal abortion – arguments that have worked for Democrats in similar places.

“This will be a local litigation of issues with national salience,” Democratic former Rep. Steve Israel, who represented an earlier version of this seat, said in an e-mail. “The special election will be tricky for both parties. While Democrats have overperformed in recent national elections, they’ve underperformed in the past three election cycles on Long Island. Republicans have flipped seats with effective messaging on crime and migration. On the other hand, the DNA of [the district] is strongly pro-choice and rejects extremism.”

In many ways, the recent GOP surge on Long Island is a return to old patterns. After World War II, Long Island grew partly because it was more affordable and offered more spacious living opportunities than New York City (Levittown, the first postwar mass suburb, was built in Nassau County). But particularly after the 1950s, the area also grew as a classic “White flight” suburb, crowded with White families concerned about crime in the city and resistant to racial integration, particularly in the schools.

Today, Nassau and Suffolk are much more racially diverse than in those years. But Stanley Feldman, a professor of political science at Stonybrook University in Suffolk County, noted that the area remains highly segregated in both housing and its schools. “It sounds absurd, but Nassau and Suffolk have over 120 independent school districts,” Feldman said. “There’s a reason why, because it becomes very easy to draw lines around minority populations that keep most of those schools White.”

After all the social and racial upheavals of the 1960s, Republicans dominated the politics of both counties for the next few decades. The GOP almost entirely controlled the county executive position in both counties from the 1970s through the 1990s and consistently rolled up big presidential margins as well. In Nassau County especially, the Republican Party built a potent political machine that served as the home base for the colorful Al D’Amato, who defied New York’s overall Democratic tilt to win three terms in the US Senate starting in 1980.

That GOP grip loosened, though, as Long Island was swept up in the realignment of suburbs outside the South toward Democrats, which was triggered by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. In the Clinton years, an array of big white-collar suburbs around major metropolitan areas – such as Oakland County in Michigan, Montgomery and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania, and Bergen County in New Jersey – moved toward Democrats largely around social issues, led by abortion and gun control. In this century, demographically similar suburbs in Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina at first, and more recently, Georgia and Arizona, have followed along a very similar trajectory. These places have become central to Democratic fortunes in both presidential and congressional races, with the party growing especially reliant on such suburban seats in the House of Representatives.

Through the Barack Obama presidency, Nassau and Suffolk were generally part of this procession. Democratic presidential candidates carried both counties in every election from 1996 through 2012 and Democrats also regained ground in local elections.

Yet Long Island never moved toward Democrats as decisively as other demographically similar suburbs. Obama’s margins in both counties were never as large as those for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and while Hillary Clinton won Nassau in 2016, she lost Suffolk to Trump. In 2020, Biden improved over Clinton on both fronts, taking Nassau with a 10-point margin and narrowly squeezing past Trump in Suffolk.

Since then, it’s been steadily downhill for Long Island Democrats. Republicans recaptured the county executive seat in Nassau in 2021 and then won the Suffolk position in a landslide in November. In 2022, Lee Zeldin – the GOP gubernatorial nominee who formerly held a Suffolk seat in the US House – carried Nassau County by 10 points and Suffolk by 18 in his surprisingly close loss to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. Most dramatically, the GOP swept all four of the area’s congressional seats in 2022. Santos, though largely unknown, won by about 8 points in a seat that Biden had carried by a similar margin just two years earlier.

Jim McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump who also polled for Santos’ 2022 campaign, said that a common set of issues has fueled the GOP gains across Long Island since Biden’s election. “The big issues in the last couple of campaigns [have been] affordability and crime and safety and they [the voters] think the Democrats are doing a really bad job,” he said. “So they are turning to Republicans.”

For Democrats, the erosion in Nassau County, including the district formerly held by Santos, is the biggest reason for concern. Suffolk County, farther away from New York City, fits the classic description of what has become Trump country: though also relatively affluent, it is populated largely by the Whites without a college degree, who constitute Trump’s most ardent supporters.

Nassau is more affluent (median home prices are nearly $125,000 more than in Suffolk) and better educated, according to Census Bureau figures. Santos’ old district is precisely the kind of socially liberal, prosperous area Democrats now depend on up and down the ballot, with a majority of its residents holding at least a four-year college degree and a median household income of nearly $130,000, according to the census.

Democrats involved in the 2022 race for the 3rd District said that crime in particular was the dominant factor in Santos’ surprisingly decisive win over Democrat Robert Zimmerman, a marketing and communications consultant. Zimmerman has told friends that although he was running for a federal office, the issue he was asked most about while campaigning was the legislation Hochul and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature had passed eliminating cash bail.

Earlier this year, New York Democrats rolled back their bail reforms, and local observers believe concerns about crime may not be quite as acute as in 2022. But anxiety about illegal immigration has grown, with New York City facing an influx of undocumented migrants. While demanding more financial help from the state and federal government, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has largely echoed Republican complaints about Biden’s management of the border.

Recent polling has found that Democrats in general, and Biden in particular, remain in a precarious position on Long Island. A Siena College poll conducted in November with Newsday found that Biden’s approval rating stood at only 41% in Nassau and 36% in Suffolk. (Hochul’s standing was not much better in either county.) And though Biden carried each county in 2020, the survey found Trump now leading the president by 7 points in Nassau and 14 in Suffolk. In the survey, about three-fifths of voters in both counties said crime is growing worse in the state and that migrants are creating more of a burden than benefit for New York. The poll also found that big majorities in both counties sided more with Israel than the Palestinians at a time when perceptions may be growing that the GOP is more unequivocally supportive than Democrats of Israel’s war in Gaza.

Adding to local Democratic concerns about this race being harder than it looks, they also warn that the revivified Nassau County GOP electoral machine has a much stronger organization than Democrats to get out the vote in what’s likely to be a low turnout special election in the dead of the Northeast winter.

Democrats nonetheless have some important tactical advantages. The sordid Santos saga may have tarred the GOP brand in the district. Although local Republicans consistently urged his removal, the GOP’s House leadership just as consistently protected him, hoping to preserve the party’s narrow four-seat majority. “Again and again, George Santos was protected by the Republican Party,” Ellie Dougherty, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “That’s a really crucial element voters will be reminded of going into this special election and why there are tailwinds behind Democrats winning this seat back.”

Another important edge could be the candidates themselves, who will be chosen by party leaders. Democrats seem highly likely to nominate Tom Suozzi, who held the seat before stepping down to unsuccessfully challenge Hochul for the party’s gubernatorial nomination last year, and earlier served two terms as the Nassau County executive. (The party was expected to announce its decision as soon as Tuesday but on Monday leaders indicated they would not reveal their choice until at least later this week.) Suozzi mostly ran at Hochul from the right, which may provide him some insulation against the GOP attacks on crime and immigration. But Suozzi’s biggest advantage would be that he is far better known than any of the potential Republican candidates. Though several of them have biographies that could prove appealing in the district, none can approach Suozzi’s name identification.

“That’s a huge advantage,” Feldman said. “He’s very well known. He’s a very moderate Democrat. … I don’t think the Republicans have anyone with significant name recognition.”

A wild card is how abortion will play in the race. As in other major suburban areas, a significant majority of Long Island voters support legal abortion. But while Zimmerman stressed the issue in his television and direct mail advertising during the 2022 race, abortion hurt Santos less than it did GOP candidates in similar districts elsewhere. McLaughlin, the Republican pollster, said that’s because in the “people’s republic of New York, [voters] know Democrats control everything and nobody is going to take away your abortion rights.”

Privately, local Democrats say McLaughlin is right about how the issue played out in 2022. The question is whether the threat to abortion rights may be any more salient to New York voters now when polls show a plausible possibility that Republicans could win unified control of Congress and the White House next year and pass some version of a national ban on the procedure.

In most cases through 2023, Democrats have continued to perform well in places like Santos’ old district. In state Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the battle for control of the Virginia House and Senate, Democrats have consistently maintained (or even expanded) their margins in big suburban areas. That continues the pattern from 2022, when solid margins in well-educated suburbs helped Democrats win seven of the nine Senate and gubernatorial races in the five key swing states likely to decide next year’s presidential contest (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).

In all of those winning Democratic campaigns, support for legal abortion and fears that Trump-aligned GOP candidates threatened basic rights – including democracy itself –outweighed discontent over the economy, crime, immigration and Biden’s overall performance. The coming election to replace Santos will again test the strength of those competing factors.

The politics of Long Island are sufficiently unique that a win for either side wouldn’t necessarily predict how other suburbs will vote next year. And even if Republicans hold the seat in February, a legal effort by Democrats to redraw the state’s congressional district lines could tilt the district back toward them in the November 2024 election for a full term.

Still, if Democrats can’t recapture a district Biden won so comfortably, immediately after its outgoing Republican representative disqualified himself so spectacularly, the Democratic anxiety about the president’s precarious position in 2024 is sure to intensify.

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