The ‘scandal penalty’ that George Santos could impose on NY-03

The Republican in Tuesday’s special election in New York isn’t just running against a Democrat — she’s running against the stench of scandal from ousted Rep. George Santos.

History suggests Mazi Melesa Pilip, the Republican, has a built-in disadvantage against former Rep. Tom Suozzi, her Democratic opponent: Voters tend to penalize the party whose controversy forces a special election — by a significant margin.

The candidate running from the same party as the scandal-tarred former incumbent has performed an average of 9 points worse than the preceding general election, according to a POLITICO analysis of races dating back to 2000.

The ”scandal penalty” isn’t universal: In the two-dozen races fitting this description, the party responsible for the resignation actually ran ahead of the previous election about a third of time. But more often than not, voters know why the special election is happening — and they punish the party responsible for it.

And sometimes, those who resign in disgrace see their districts flip to the other party after they left office during their terms. This includes those who resigned after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter, posting a shirtless photo of himself on Craigslist and engaging in a “throuple” with her husband and a former campaign staffer.

This record could cause problems for Pilip — and explains why Suozzi is referring to her as “George Santos 2.0” in the closing days of the race.

Santos won the 2022 election over Democrat Robert Zimmerman by 8 percentage points. The average scandal penalty from this century would result in a near-tie between Suozzi and Pilip.

Republicans acknowledge that the Santos scandal could hurt Pilip, but say that voters’ concerns over crime and immigration are having a greater impact in the race.

“We should not have a shot in this seat after Santos in a [district President Joe Biden carried by 8 points], running against a former incumbent,” said Dan Conston, the president of the House GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund. “And we very much do, and it’s because of the power of our message.”

Since 2000, there have been 24 special elections following the resignation of members engulfed in a major scandal. Of those, 21 involved contested races between both major parties with a comparable pre-resignation general election.

In 13 of the 21, the scandal-affiliated party performed worse in the special election than in the previous general election. And in most of those eight cases in which the special-election candidate did better than the previous incumbent, the scandal was already public in the general election, likely dragging down the numbers.

The most recent special election on the list was in June 2022 in Nebraska, after the resignation of GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry following a criminal conviction for campaign finance violations. (Fortenberry’s conviction has since been reversed on appeal.)

Fortenberry had defeated his Democratic opponent in 2020 by 22 percentage points. But now-Rep. Mike Flood (R-Neb.) only won the 2022 special election by 5 points — a 16-point drop

There have been even bigger swings in recent years. In April 2018, now-Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) won a special election by 5 points to replace former Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who resigned after ethics complaints that he had asked multiple staffers to be a surrogate to carry a pregnancy for him and his wife. But Franks had won the seat in 2016 by 37 points — a 32-point swing.

New York is no stranger to special elections that gyrate wildly after a scandal. When Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned in 2011 after posting a graphic photo on the website then-known as Twitter, Republicans flipped his Queens-and-Brooklyn House district, with the GOP’s Bob Turner winning a special election by 5 points, even after he’d lost to Weiner 10 months earlier by a whopping 22 points.

And Kathy Hochul, the state’s governor who beat Suozzi in the 2022 gubernatorial primary that led to his exit from Congress, herself won a special election to the House in 2011 by 5 points, replacing Republican Christopher Lee, the shirtless selfie Republican, despite Lee’s 47-point win in the 2010 GOP wave election.

The biggest shift since 2000 comes from the Pittsburgh suburbs in 2018, when Democrat Conor Lamb won a hotly contested special election by about three-tenths of a percentage point to replace former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned the year prior after he was accused of suggesting his then-mistress obtain an abortion. This seat was not included in our analysis because it was so heavily Republican that Democrats didn’t even field a candidate against Murphy in either 2014 or 2016.

There are other races on this list following headline-grabbing resignations in which the opposite party all ran stronger in special elections to replace them. That includes after Republican Blake Farenthold of Texas, of “ducky pajamas” infamy, resigned following sexual harassment and campaign-finance violations. Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois was investigated for abuse of mileage-reimbursement funds and known for redecorating his office in the mode of the British drama “Downton Abbey.” Democrat Eric Massa of New York admitted to groping and tickling a male staffer.

Santos’ scandal — he’s accused of a string of frauds, fabrications and campaign finance violations — certainly is as notorious as any of these. And unlike the other special elections, this one comes because Santos was expelled from the House after refusing to resign.

Of course, scandal does not preordain an outcome, and there are plenty of other factors in this race — including a snowstorm that could affect turnout.

What we do know is this: There’s a scandal penalty in modern elections. We’ll learn soon enough whether the voters will make Pilip pay it.


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