U.S. Rep. George Santos on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2023 Credit - Aaron Schwartz—Xinhua via Getty Images
Even before House Democrats introduced a resolution on Tuesday to expel him from Congress, U.S. Rep. George Santos’ political future seemed tenuous. Reporters began discovering in December that the New York Republican had lied about topics as varied as his purported Jewish identity, his work history, and his campaign finances. He quickly became the target of numerous investigations. Then, in May, he was charged by the Justice Department on several counts of wire fraud and money laundering. He was also charged on theft of public funds and making false statements to the House of Representatives. Santos has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
As his political career appears to be going up in flames, challengers are circling like moths. Already, five candidates have launched bids to replace him, whether that opportunity comes when he’s due to be on the ballot again next November, or sooner. More candidates are likely to announce for the seat as the situation unfolds.
For now, Santos is staying put. Despite even some of his fellow Republicans calling on him to resign, Santos has yet to lose the support of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who needs every vote he can get in the closely divided House. If Santos were to leave Congress in the coming months, New York Governor Kathy Hochul could call a special election and party leaders would have the power to choose their preferred candidates. Democrats handily won the district in 2020, and they are optimistic about their odds of doing so again, pointing to Biden’s success there and the enthusiastic anti-Santos protests that have dogged the congressman during his first term.
Here’s who has jumped into the race so far.
Despite numerous scandals and criticism even from within his own party, Santos announced in April that he is indeed running for reelection.
“I was elected to fulfill the campaign promises of securing our border, lowering the high cost of living, solving the disastrous SALT issue in our tax code, and fighting the Hochul crime crisis of policies empowering criminals to terrorize the people of New York,” Santos wrote in a statement he posted to Twitter. “I’ve been in office for 100 days, and through legislation and my votes, I’ve already made significant efforts to honor those promises.”
Efforts to reach Santos’ campaign were unsuccessful. In a statement to TIME, a spokesperson with his congressional office wrote, “Congressional offices do not comment on campaign-related matters.”
The only other Republican officially in the race so far is Kellen Curry, an Afghanistan veteran who previously worked at J.P. Morgan. Curry tells TIME he started thinking about returning to public service during the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it wasn’t until he read about Santos’ lies that he decided to take the plunge.
“Somebody could not go to this extent to defraud the American people,” he recalls thinking when he first read some of the damning stories about Santos. “But, you know, it is what it is. Now, when I go around the district, a lot of people don’t even want to talk about it.”
Curry says that he is emphasizing constituent services as he campaigns, as well as youth mental health, water infrastructure, remedies for noise pollution, and federal resources for the Merchant Marine Academy. “We have the most ineffective member of Congress right now and he just can’t get any traction on some of the issues that are important to residents of this district,” Curry says.
He calls himself a “kitchen-table-issues Republican,” and says he has been a Republican for most of his adult life because he supports limited government, low taxes, strong national defense, and the free market. How does he think Santos will affect the Republican brand in the district? “I think Santos is an aberration. I think he’s one bad apple,” Curry says. “I think the national party is in a tough spot with needing as many votes as they can get in a very slim majority in the House. But I also think there is a sentiment of wanting to move beyond the distraction. … We’re going to have that opportunity here in the Third District pretty soon.”
He adds that he looks forward to a potential special election or getting the chance to defeat Santos in a GOP primary next year if it comes down to it. “I think this whole Santos reelection thing is going to go absolutely nowhere,” Curry says. “My sense is that he’s doing this to create leverage with with DOJ.”
Zak Malamed, who co-founded the group Next 50 to raise millions for battleground Democratic candidates under 50 years old, is the latest candidate to enter the race in NY-03.
“I’m Zak Malamad and everything I’m about to tell you is true,” the 29-year-old Democrat said in his announcement video published on May 15.
In an interview with TIME, Malamad describes Santos’ scandals as too big to ignore. “Santos is not just a local embarrassment, a statewide embarrassment, a national embarrassment; he’s an international embarrassment,” he says. “When I was in Israel and the UAE over the past couple of months, I had people coming up to me asking me if I knew anything about George Santos, not knowing that he was my representative in Congress.”
Malamad says his bid brings fresh energy to the race, which is needed to defeat “MAGA Republican extremists”, and stands apart from current and potential candidates, some of whom have track records of losing in the district. He also says he’ll be focused on winning by growing the district’s Democratic base, especially in the part that reaches into Queens.
Malamed says he identifies with the New Democrats, a moderate congressional caucus focused on fiscal responsibility. Asked about what issues matter most to him, Malamed talks about expanding health care access and lowering the cost of living in the district, which he says can be prohibitive for younger Americans like himself. Having lost a friend to gun violence in 2020, Malamed says he also intends to prioritize gun safety, an issue he’s been working on for more than a decade.
He says the first 24 hours of his campaign have been marked by enthusiasm from across the ideological spectrum, including a shoutout on Twitter from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California progressive, who praised Malamed as part of “the next generation of passionate and willing public servants.”
“A real person focused on other real people,” reads the tagline on Democrat Will Murphy’s campaign website. The attorney and professor, who is making his first bid for office, says he’s the only candidate in the race who represents ordinary people.
“When the Santos news broke, I looked to the people stepping up to restore an average person, an everyday person, a real person’s faith in government,” he says. “And I just saw more of the same. They might not be as bad as Santos. But they’re a bunch of self-interested career politicians.”
Murphy says his campaign is focused on restoring trust in government. He has committed to serving no more than six years in office. Other top issues include restoring the SALT deduction and implementing common sense gun safety reforms. “We have a Second Amendment for a reason,” he says. “But voting to make the AR-15 our national weapon, it doesn’t protect people, and it doesn’t protect our Second Amendment rights.”
As a father to a two-week old and a two-year old, he says he feels a personal stake in advancing gun safety in schools and working on education issues.
“Not every family involves wedding rings and babies,” he says. “But at the end of the day, family matters in this district. And I’m the only candidate that can say, ‘I’m raising my family in this district.’”
While Murphy is preparing for a crowded Democratic primary, he says he doesn’t think a special election is likely. “If Kevin McCarthy wasn’t such a spineless coward, desperately clinging to power in the House, he would do the right thing, be a real leader, expel George Santos, and there would be a special election,” he says. “But I think it’s been made pretty clear Kevin McCarthy is a spineless coward.”
Six years ago, Josh Lafazan was elected to the Nassau County Legislature at the age of 23, its youngest member ever. Before that, he had become the state’s youngest elected official when he joined his local school board at 18. Now Lafazan has joined the race for Santos’ seat.
On his campaign website, Lafazan states that he is a professor and an adviser to healthcare provider Northwell Health, and calls “fighting the heroin and opioid epidemic his top legislative priority.” The site also emphasizes his support for veterans and people with disabilities, as well as fighting bullying in schools.
This is not Lafazan’s first run in NY-03, Last year, he was among the candidates across the country who received support from disgraced businessman Sam Bankman-Fried. He ended up placing third in the Democratic primary.
Former Democratic State Senator Anna Kaplan, who lost her re-election bid last year, is also in the race. Her launch video features news coverage of Santos’ lies and scandals while accusing him of wanting to restrict reproductive rights and slamming him for backing a bill celebrating AR-15s.
Additionally, the video tells her story of growing up Jewish in Iran, moving to New York, and officiating some of the state’s first same-sex weddings. It also emphasizes her support for abortion rights and gun safety, and the fact that she flipped a Republican State Senate seat in 2018, delivering control of the chamber to Democrats.
She previously ran in NY-03 in 2016, losing in the Democratic primary. Earlier in her career, she was elected Councilwoman for the Town of North Hempstead.
Other Possible Candidates
Many potential candidates who could become heavy-hitters have yet to declare whether or not they will enter the race. Among them is former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who previously represented the district and lost the gubernatorial primary to Hochul last year. Suozzi is said to be among the party’s favorites for retaking the seat.
Another Democrat who could launch a bid is Robert Zimmerman, a DNC member and businessman who was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2022, losing to Santos by 8 points. Zimmerman has faced some criticism for not doing more to expose Santos’ falsehoods before the election. Asked by the Washington Post early this year whether he’d run again, he deflected the question.
Across the aisle, another candidate has piqued Republicans’ interest: New York State Senator Jack Martins.
“I’ve been calling on George Santos to resign since he took office and yesterday’s spectacle only highlights why he needs to step down.” Martins tweeted on May 11 after the Congressman was indicted. “We deserve better.”