Republicans who ousted George Santos don’t regret it, even though they lost the seat

Last updated on February 18, 2024

House Republicans expressed few regrets this week for their decision to oust the scandal-plagued George Santos or even for their inability to hold his seat this past Tuesday.

That loss, in a closely watched special election in New York’s third congressional district, has further narrowed an already-thin GOP House majority. But those Republicans who gave Santos the boot said they’d do it again. Some bristled at the idea that they’d now reconsider. “I didn’t shrink the Republican majority — George Santos shrunk it by his actions,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). “I’m sorry, you have to have standards in the halls of Congress. And so I don’t regret voting to expel George Santos. He was unfit to serve … Sometimes these decisions are bigger than politics.”

The Santos saga hasn’t just forced Republicans to weigh the ethical transgressions they’d tolerate for a more powerful grip on the House chamber. It has required them to confront the possibility that their formula for winning some battleground seats like his — a combination of tough-on-the-border and tough-on-crime politics — may not be the blueprint they imagined for November.

But few seem eager to see the party make major structural or policy changes after Democrat Tom Suozzi won the special election convincingly. Instead, lawmakers accused Republican Mazi Pilip of running a bad campaign, noted that now-President Joe Biden won the district by more than eight points in 2020, and pointed to myriad isolated factors — everything from poor party financing, to bad weather, to Santos’ “taint” — to explain away Tuesday’s loss.

“Congratulations to the Democrats, they spent $15 million and won a seat Biden won by eight points, by less than eight points,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. His takeaway: “If they outspend us three-to-one, they can win Biden plus-8 seats.”

While Democrats did majorly outspend Republicans in the New York race, pouring $14.4 million into political ads in the district compared to the GOP’s $8.5 million, Long Island has raced to the right in the years since Biden’s win. The district had swung so far that Santos won by nearly eight points in 2022 in a race that drew little national attention. Hudson’s dismissiveness belied the hope that many Republicans previously expressed for retaining the seat.

It also wasn’t shared by everyone in the party.

Some members expressed concern that months of dysfunction in the GOP-led House had left them with few clear wins to tout to voters beyond the impeachment of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the passage of a major immigration overhaul early this Congress that is going nowhere in the Senate.

“I think ultimately we always have to be judged on both what we try to achieve and what we actually achieve,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.). “And we have to achieve more.”

Others, particularly those who originally opposed ousting Santos, said that the original sin the party made was to boot him from the chamber before there was a conviction.

“Don’t expel a Republican member of Congress that hasn’t been convicted of a crime and is a good vote,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who added that she planned to talk to her conference about the perils of Republican infighting.

Santos himself said House Republicans at large regret pushing him out now that their margin has shrunk even further, telling POLITICO that Pilip’s loss meant taking away voters’ “duly elected choice and recalling their election without allowing them to make that decision in November.”

But as the party took stock of Tuesday night’s election, in which their margin was shaved down to a mere two seats, many seemed simply uninterested in, or disinclined to do, any type of second guessing.

That mindset applied to the tactical choices the party had made in contesting the special election.

“I think our committee did a good job. I think our candidate did a good job,” said senior GOP member Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “You don’t know how much of it was weather related and all that and there’s always a lot of individual factors.”

It applied to the vote to expel Santos, too.

“My vote was not contingent on the outcome of the election. It was based on what I thought was the right thing to do,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), who is running for Senate in 2024. “If it was the right thing to do, then the seat doesn’t matter.”

“I wish we would have won it, but so be it,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.)

Santos was first elected in 2022 in a shocking upset, besting Democrat Robert Zimmerman in a race that many thought would not be competitive. But even before he was sworn in, his lies started to unravel. Among the litany of falsehoods he pedaled: Claiming his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, that he had employees who survived the deadly shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando; and that his mother was in Manhattan during the Sept. 11 attacks.

A damning 56-page report released last year by the House Ethics Committee found that Santos likely broke federal laws by inappropriately spending campaign funds and working to obscure his trail of campaign money. And when the House voted 311-114 to expel him in December, the vote was notably bipartisan, with 105 Republicans lining up against him.

The loss of his seat on Tuesday was one of a string of almost uninterrupted defeats the GOP has suffered across the country since the midterms. Arguably the biggest of those losses was in Wisconsin. In the most expensive state Supreme Court race ever, a liberal candidate blew out a former conservative justice last spring, flipping the balance of power on the court and leading to the potential break-up of the GOP’s durable legislative gerrymander.

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection in 2023 despite the otherwise deep red tilt of his state. And Democrats took complete control — albeit narrowly — of the Virginia legislature despite a major investment from GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Candidates in special legislative elections last year ran, on average, eight points ahead of Biden’s margins.

Still, some Republicans running in competitive districts were not discouraged by Tuesday’s outcome. Republican Alison Esposito, who is challenging Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) in his lower Hudson Valley district in New York, said immigration will continue to be an important issue.

“It is clear that Tom Suozzi did a complete 180 on his views on immigration and securing the southern border,” she said in a statement. “He couldn’t run away from the Biden agenda and his past policy mistakes fast enough.”

Other Republicans, including those who voted to expel Santos, made the case that more distance from the ex-representative would, ultimately, serve the party better.

“Probably there was still some Santos taint,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), in downplaying Tuesday’s results. “So it’s not representative of our prospects.”

Anthony Adragna, Nicholas Wu, Daniella Diaz, Madison Fernandez and Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.