“We will select the best candidate, and we will give 110 percent effort as we do in every race,” Nassau County GOP Chair Joe Cairo said. “We’ve probably heard from 20 different prospective candidates.”
Between the two parties, about 30 candidates — with varying degrees of viability — have been jockeying for Santos’ seat. The race is vital: It’s one of about six battleground New York House races next year critical to determining who controls Congress. It’s also dizzying with the possibility of three elections in 10 months.
Top contenders said in interviews they’re well aware of the variables in the moderate district that President Joe Biden won by 10 points in 2020.
They’re ready for both a lower-turnout special election as early as January or February, if Santos is removed soon from office, as well as a June primary, if Santos sticks it out. And then there will be a November general election, when potentially redrawn district lines could be a complicating factor.
“Our job is to show up,” said Democratic candidate Zak Malamed, who once ran a donor network for aspiring politicians.
Republican hopeful Mike Sapraicone, a retired NYPD detective, said he was putting “my heart and my soul” into the run — not to mention his own cash.
Running with or without Santos
The field for New York’s 3rd Congressional District — which spreads across Nassau County and into Queens — is still in formation as better-known candidates enter or weigh bids.
Former Democrat Rep. Tom Suozzi recently declared he’ll run. The 2022 Democratic nominee Robert Zimmerman and 2016 Republican nominee Jack Martins, a state senator, have also been floated as special election contenders.
Santos, who took office despite fabricating much of his resume, will appear before a federal judge Friday on Long Island to be arraigned on a recent 23-count superseding indictment. The expanded case against the first-term House member now includes additional charges of wire fraud, identity theft and falsifying records.
Santos’ attorney, Joe Murray, said his client will plead not guilty on Friday.
Court papers show Santos has engaged in plea talks with prosecutors, but he has maintained his innocence and publicly declared he won’t accept a plea deal.
“They can try to expel me, but I pity the fools that go ahead and do that and think that that’s the smartest idea,” he told reporters earlier this month.
He remains defiant about running for reelection in the face of an expulsion measure proposed by Rep. Anthony D’Esposito with fellow House Republicans from Long Island and other parts of the state.
There’s a glaring problem, though: Santos refunded more campaign cash than he raised last quarter.
Democrats in his district, meanwhile, are raking in money for the election — special or otherwise — and Republicans appear just as determined to get rid of him.
The Nassau GOP has been plotting to remove him from office since he took the congressional oath in January, with party chair Cairo and more than two dozen other local Republicans demanding Santos’ resignation.
Cairo said in an interview he hasn’t spoken with Santos since December.
Ten or 15 of the 20 GOP contenders deserve serious consideration, and the process will be “hastened” if there’s a special election, the party leader said.
Cairo stressed, however, that his party is more immediately focused on local races next month.
Indeed, earlier this month, at their respective fall dinner gatherings (both held at Crest Hollow Country Club a week apart), the Nassau Democratic and Republican parties touted this year’s municipal candidates.
“The local races are important because when you get your candidates in there, you can begin to build an infrastructure, motivate voters and attract more volunteers,” Jay Jacobs, who chairs the county and state Democratic committees, said in an interview.
“We’ve enjoyed a fair amount of success the last couple years, ’21 and ’22,” Cairo said. “We think it’ll continue in ’23 and carry over into the next year.”
Winning Santos’ seat key in 2024
Santos’ swing seat is the prize party officials are laser-focused on.
The Democrats thus far have a larger, better-known, better-funded field — and they previously represented the district under Suozzi.
“I think the Democrats will take this seat,” Jacobs said. “You’ve got a mess on Capitol Hill, you’ve got George Santos, which is an embarrassment, and I’m confident we’ll have a strong candidate for that election.”
He counted four or five viable candidates in a total of about eight, so far.
Jacobs said the decision on who to give the party line to in a special election would be made by the Nassau and Queens Democrats, led by Rep. Gregory Meeks, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Suozzi’s entry remakes the primary landscape. He’s a big name in local politics and a strong fundraiser. But he left Congress last year when he ran against Hochul in the gubernatorial primary, straining some Democratic ties in the state.
Former state Sen. Anna Kaplan, Nassau County Legislator Josh Lafazan and Austin Cheng, a health care CEO, are also declared contenders.
Malamed, a first-time candidate and a former national fundraising juggernaut, has proved his prowess by reporting $530,000 cash on hand without the self-funding that others relied on.
“If there’s a takeaway from all of this, it’s that complacency is not going to win this race,” Malamed said of the Santos saga.
A wild card is Zimmerman, who lost to Santos last year.
If there’s a special election, Suozzi is expected to be the party favorite. But Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member with strong labor support, could also be chosen, as well as several others.
Zimmerman and Suozzi both declined to comment.
In efforts to keep the seat, Republicans are under pressure to back a more familiar candidate after choosing a relative newcomer in Santos, whom Cairo reiterated was recommended by the Queens GOP.
Retired NYPD detective Mike Sapraicone and Afghanistan war veteran Kellen Curry are the top fundraisers; Sapraicone far more familiar to Long Island political leaders as a donor to both parties.
Sapraicone has $520,000 in cash on hand, recent filings showed.
“I’m so tired of looking at the far, far left and the far, far right,” he said in an interview. “I thought it was about time we have somebody who cares about the people who elect them.”
Another name being circulated is Jack Martins, the state senator who ran for Congress in 2016 and 2008. He said in an interview that his preference is to stay on Long Island.
“My priorities are my district, continuing to serve in the Senate and the quality of life that I have with my wife and children,” Martins explained. “And I’m very concerned about the impact that Washington will have on that.”
But he did not rule out a run: “We will have that conversation if and when it comes up.”
Santos has few friends in politics as he returns to federal court, but Queens Republican Party Chair Anthony Nunziato still has not called for his ouster.
Acknowledging that Queens makes up a small part of the district and the boundaries could change in the redistricting process, Nunziato said in an interview that he’ll defer to Cairo on endorsing a candidate.
“Show the proof, let him prove himself,” Nunziato added of Santos, with whom he still talks. “To me, to have the tail wag the dog doesn’t make any sense.”
Jeff Coltin contributed to this report.