Last year, Republicans managed to win back the House of Representatives thanks in great part to the four Democratic seats they flipped in New York. One of the Republicans to do it was George Santos, who was soon exposed as a prolific liar and whose expulsion from Congress last week has kick-started the 2024 fight to control the House.
The special election to fill the Santos seat will be held on February 13, 2024, and will likely determine more than a winner. Already a top target for both parties, the seat will play a key role in securing control of the House, which Republicans currently hold by just three seats. (The Cook Political Report currently lists the race as a “toss-up” in its House rankings.) The race to represent the district is being seen by many as a bellwether election, a potential sign of what lies ahead for the rest of the crucial 2024 cycle. It may provide the first indicator of the parties’ strengths as they’re set to head into a marquee presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump at a time of low voter enthusiasm.
The district spans parts of Long Island and Queens, making it a toss-up by design. Recent elections on Long Island have generally been more favorable to Republicans, said Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Long Island’s Hofstra University, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out of reach for Democrats. “Democrats do have the numbers. That’s true in pretty much all of Nassau. Then you have to add in Queens, and that’s generally more friendly for Democrats too,” he said. “But it includes parts of Nassau County that are very, very Republican. I think that sort of balances out.”
Steve Israel, who represented a different version of the Third District for two terms in Congress, knows the area well. “There’s this narrative that the district is a complete toss-up. When you really look at the district, its DNA is Democratic. It has Democratic DNA,” he said. “It’s true that Republicans have overperformed in the past three election cycles in NY-03, but most of the electoral experience in the district has favored Democrats.”
Israel, who once served as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, cautioned against reading too deeply into the results of this one race. “My experience with special elections is that they generate a ton of interest and energy and forecasting, but it ultimately fades. There will be 48 hours of headlines, no matter who wins, arguing that the results of the special in NY-03 are leading indicators of what will happen in November,” he said. “But the actual correlation between special elections and general elections is less clear historically.”
Israel led the DCCC in 2011 when Kathy Hochul, then Erie County clerk, flipped a Republican district covering Buffalo following the incumbent’s resignation. He said the result prompted many to speculate that Democrats would take back the House in 2012, and though the party cut into the Republican majority, it fell short of taking control of the chamber.
“Specials are about the unique circumstances that led to the special and that people are talking about in the district at the time of the special. They tend not to have enduring impacts or enduring effects,” he said.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Democrats have continued to perform well on the state and local level, particularly in special elections. Last year, Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election to replace Antonio Delgado, whom Hochul tapped to become lieutenant governor. Ryan campaigned heavily on reproductive rights in the aftermath of the reversal of Roe and his was one of the few suburban Democrat-held seats to stay in party hands in 2022. The result of next year’s special election could signify that state Democrats have a chance to claw back some of their flipped districts or that Republicans have only strengthened their hold in the state.
Unlike regular elections where nominees are selected by voters in primaries, the leaders of county parties select a candidate in New York special elections. Democrats are virtually certain to pick Tom Suozzi, who previously represented the district in Congress for three terms and has been running for his former seat since October.
His potential path back to Congress has been full of drama. In 2021, Suozzi decided against running for reelection and mounted an ill-fated and at times contentious primary challenge against Hochul as she sought her first full term as governor. He came in third place. Hochul, though, did not forget or easily forgive. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the governor called Suozzi up to Albany after Santos was expelled and sought an apology for remarks he made during the gubernatorial primary, such as calling New York’s first female executive an “interim governor” and once alleging she fostered a “culture of corruption.” (On Wednesday, Hochul confirmed the meeting to reporters during an unrelated event, saying that Suozzi “apologized for those characterizations.”) Hochul also sought assurances that Suozzi, a quintessential moderate, would be more consistent in defending abortion rights during the campaign. “Everyone knew that I could look at a variety of candidates, and I was looking for someone I thought could win. But also that was an important conversation to clear the air in one respect. It was in his interest to make sure that conversation went well,” Hochul said Wednesday.
On the Republican side, Nassau County officials are reportedly vetting several candidates, including Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator; State Senator Jack Martins, who previously challenged Suozzi for the seat; and retired NYPD detective Mike Sapraicone, who was previously running against Santos. The party’s selection is expected to receive heavier scrutiny following Santos, whose numerous biographical lies eluded opposition researchers or party officials alike.
Joseph Cairo, head of the Nassau County Republican Party, told WABC that the party will use an outside firm to assist with the vetting process. “We’re going through everyone who’s expressed interest,” he said. “We have no clear-cut choice.”
No matter who wins, they will only be filling out the rest of Santos’s term — meaning the victor will have the opportunity to run for their own full term in November. The prescheduled 2024 primary and general elections are set to go on as planned. “I have a sense that voters in NY-03 will feel very fatigued by the time the actual election is held. They will be battle weary,” Israel said.