As the political world puzzles over how George Santos and his resume of lies slipped through a whole election largely undetected, the race itself holds some answers.
Fresh off getting trounced in 2020, Santos initially took his second bite at the apple in a heavily Democratic district. But at the last minute, just a few months before the primary, that changed entirely. A court-appointed expert released new district maps and Republicans’ chances of picking up seats in New York state improved dramatically.
TPM spoke with Long Island Republicans and GOP operatives who worked on his campaign, all of whom agreed: Redistricting in New York state didn’t just give Santos a dramatic boost — it changed the nature of the campaign from within and without.
With that came money. FEC reports show that Santos’ 2020 campaign reported $706,180 received and $638,536 spent during that cycle. During the 2022 campaign, those amounts more than tripled: the effort reported $2,968,755 received and $3,051,098 spent.
“At the beginning of the 2020 race vs. 2022, there were some dramatic money moves,” a Republican political operative who worked on Santos’ campaign told TPM.
The campaign itself was odd: Because the new maps arrived fairly late in the cycle, Santos faced no primary opponent. And, ironically, thanks to his earlier, failed run in 2020 against former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), he already had name recognition among Republicans.
New Maps, New Odds
The New York congressional map, when it was finally finished in May 2022, made Santos’ district more winnable than he could have dreamed.
Pre-2022, national Democrats were counting on New York to be a buffer against aggressive Republican gerrymanders elsewhere in the country, with a redistricting process they thought they controlled. They planned to exact a maximal gerrymander of their own, the better to net a few extra House seats.
If these legislators had gotten their way, Santos likely would have lost his election despite the staggering underperformance of Democratic House candidates in the state. The Democrats’ map, which New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed into law, gave the 3rd Congressional District a 10-point Democratic advantage, per FiveThirtyEight’s calculation.
But Republicans successfully challenged that map in court. After appeals, the appointment of a special master, delayed primaries and much internal Democratic finger pointing, a new congressional map was approved that wiped out the Democratic advantage and produced multiple very competitive districts. All of a sudden, Santos’ was one of them.
Under the court-approved special master’s map, Santos found himself running in a district with a Democratic lean of just one point.
Instead of celebrating, like one might expect a young, ambitious congressional hopeful to do, Santos groused on Twitter.
“They fucking split the Massapequa’s on Long Island! It’s nuts!” he tweeted the day the maps were finalized.
“They split the largest Italian/Irish community on Long Island in half!” he added. “That’s insane, they’ve always been in the same district because of their community values and ties. Same with south bronx, no one is splitting the south bronx up. I’m tired of people saying ‘white man bad.’”
He concluded his rant: “The district was a R district with the master’s first draft. Now it’s a D district.”
The special master’s final map was more Democratic than his draft — very slightly. The draft went from a D+.55 Partisan Voting Index to D+1.85 (that’s a slightly different measure than FiveThirtyEight uses, though it’s used to determine the same thing. It considers districts from R+5 to D+5 swing seats). But it was far more Republican-friendly than the map Hochul had signed into law.
RRH Elections, a Republican elections blog, noted the eyebrow-raising reaction: “Someone is apparently not happy that he now gets to run in the most Republican-friendly seat the North Shore of Nassau County has had in 20 years…” the account tweeted.
The group tagged New York state Sen. Jack Martins (R), hoping he’d tap in instead.
But the turbulence over the maps had gobbled up much of the primary calendar. The congressional and state Senate primaries were split from the gubernatorial, shoved back two months to a rare August election.
The maps were finalized the same day Santos expressed his displeasure on Twitter: May 21, 2022. Early voting began August 13, less than three months later. That’s not much time for a new candidate to seek her party’s nomination (to cut in half the signature requirements), collect the signatures, raise money, advertise and, ultimately, stand up a whole campaign.
While there was a frenzy of candidacy announcements after the new maps were produced, they largely came from candidates already committed to running trying to stake a claim on the reconfigured districts.
Santos was unopposed, and continued on to the general.
The 2022 run came after a bid in 2020 that saw Santos briefly lead in the vote count, thanks to some of the same processes that occurred nationally: Democrats voting more by mail, and Republicans tending to vote in person.
He was pitted against Rep. Suozzi and, former operatives recalled, was winning in the vote count on election night.
This, of course, was an artifact of the “red mirage” that Trump exploited to stoke the myth that he was the victim of voter fraud: even in deep blue New York state, Republicans tended to vote in person, and Democrats by mail. The result was that early vote totals had Santos ahead, while Suozzi went on to win by 12.5 percent, per the New York Times.
But three Republican operatives who worked on Santos’ 2020 campaign told TPM that Santos headed to D.C. for new member orientation on the contingency that Suozzi wouldn’t pull out a victory.
That brief illusion of victory left Santos and those around him emboldened, one GOP operative said.
“Was there some skepticism? Yes. But I think it showed, let’s go out and do it again, if he’s willing to do it again,” the person told TPM.
But also, the person said, his 2020 longshot run meant Santos was able to escape at least some of the initial vetting.
“It fell through the cracks because they were so focused on the lines — we just needed candidates,” the person said.