NY-03: The Primary Problem That Sent George Santos to D.C.
How did Long Island voters go from backing Biden to Santos? Special interests elevated an establishment progressive over a red-to-blue local legislator in low-turnout closed Democratic primary.
District: New York’s 3rd (NY-03)
Partisan Lean (PVI): D+2
Biden Vote Share: 53.4%
Trump Vote Share: 45.3%
Located on Long Island’s North shore, New York’s 3rd Congressional district spans Nassau County and was represented by Democrats for a decade heading into the 2022 cycle.
Incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi has burnished strong independent credentials, serving as vice-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in DC after more than a decade serving in local and county office. This centrist credibility got him to 53% in his congressional race, two points ahead of Hillary Clinton on the 2016 ballot. Suozzi’s run for governor in 2022 created an open seat, but one that should have been safe given Joe Biden’s 8-point margin in 2020.
According to Cook Political Report, George Santos had run as “a sacrificial lamb” against Suozzi in 2020, underperforming Trump and losing by more than 12 points. But the following cycle provided an opening for Santos to run it back.
On the Democratic side, five candidates ran in the open primary to fill Suozi’s seat. The leading contender was a communications consultant named Robert Zimmerman who had never held elected office, but had run and lost three prior races. Zimmerman was an unpaid cable news contributor and had served as a member of the DNC for 22 years. He supported progressive policy positions such as Medicare for All and touted the backing of progressive groups including the NYSUT teachers union. On the morning of Zimmerman’s campaign announcement, he was promptly boosted by AFT President Randi Weingarten.
Zimmerman would face two other challengers, including one who explicitly touted support from Republicans. Josh Lafazan, a moderate Democrat with an independent track record, had become the youngest elected official in the state in 2012 when first elected to his local School Board. As a member of the Nassau County legislature, Lafazan won election three times in the 18th legislative district — which broke for Donald Trump in 2020. His legislative district is currently represented by Republicans at every other level of government. On the campaign trail in 2022, Lafazan touted endorsements from incumbent Democrat Suozzi himself, law enforcement unions, and local Republican elected officials.
Despite the reality of volatile independent-minded voters and the option of another candidate with bipartisan credentials to succeed Suozzi, institutional players and special interests closed ranks around Zimmerman.
It was not just capital-D Democrats who drove this primary failure. The undemocratic primary process in New York includes closed primaries (disallowing independents from participating in both parties’ nomination processes), and the 2022 primary was held on a separate day from statewide contests (including the state’s high-profile gubernatorial race).
Zimmerman advanced to the general election with fewer than 10,000 votes in this comically low-turnout election to face off against George Santos in the general election to represent 770,000 New Yorkers in DC.
General Election Results
In November 2022, George Santos received 16,000 fewer voters than he had during the 2020 general election. Yet he managed to trounce Robert Zimmerman by more than 7 points in a district that experienced depressed Democratic turnout. As a result, he underperformed Biden’s 2020 margins in NY-03 by more than 15 points (or more than 90,000 raw votes). He lost the most votes in Nassau County, where his fellow contender for the Democratic nomination Josh Lafazan had won his county legislature seat three times.
In the following months, numerous ethics issues and scandals arose surrounding Rep-elect (and then Rep.) George Santos. Numerous local Republican leaders and New York congressmen have called on Santos to resign, and he continues to draw headlines about shady campaign finance filings and other suspicious behavior.
The Welcome Party commissioned a poll with PFP Research of 500 likely voters in NY-03 from March 5-12, 2023. Results demonstrate that the path for Democrats in this Long Island district runs through the pragmatic center — not the progressive establishment.
Here are the topline findings:
NY-03 Voters Think Santos Should Resign
76 percent of NY-03 voters believe Santos should resign, while only 11 percent think he should not – this includes 62 percent who reported voting for him in the 2022 election. Voters find Santos’s claim that his mother died in the 9/11 terrorist attack to be the most offensive scandal surrounding him.
Moderate Lafazan is a Stronger Candidate than 2022 Democratic Nominee Zimmerman Due to His Independent Record
In an initial ballot, 2022 Democratic primary candidates Joshua Lafazan and Robert Zimmerman both trail Republican Jack Martins with large segments of the electorate undecided (21 percent in the Lafazan match-up, 16 percent in the Zimmerman match-up). Martins does not hit 50 percent in either ballot.
After hearing a neutral description of each candidate, Martins still narrowly beats establishment progressive Robert Zimmerman (Martins 46%, Zimmerman 45%) but independent moderate Democrat Lafazan leads against Martins (Martins 44%, Lafazan 46%).
These descriptions were made using content from the candidate’s websites and recent media coverage, with Lafazan labeled “a self-described ‘moderate Democrat’ who represents Nassau county in the legislature and has consistently won a district that voted for Trump” and Zimmerman “a businessman and community leader who has spent his life fighting for social and environmental justice”.
Lafazan’s advantage is due to crossover voters, as he wins 16% of Trump voters and 8% of Santos voters, compared to Zimmerman’s 10% of Trump voters and 3% of Santos voters. Zimmerman performs more strongly among Democrats, while Lafazan performs more strongly among Republican, independent and self-described moderate voters.
Long Island Voters Want Democrats to Move to the Center
Democratic voters in NY-03 believe that their party should move to the center by a wide margin, with 46% saying move to the center, 33% say stay where it is and only 13% saying the party should move in a more liberal direction.
The complete poll memo can be accessed here.
Santos has become a dominant media story, but the Democratic primary aspect of what happened in NY-03 has gotten little attention aside from a spate of headlines about the evident lack of opposition research.
Who Democrats nominate matters, as does how they nominate them!
In 2022, NY-03 was a perfect storm of poor candidate fit and an unrepresentative primary process. Fewer than 10,000 voters in a closed primary put a special interest-backed candidate up to general elections voters in what should have been a Democratic seat. Democrats acted like it was safe — but it was not safe, for the party or our democracy. As a result, Democrats passed up a young moderate alternative (despite the fact that voters in the district have a clear preference for someone closer to the center) and a pathological liar flipped what had long been a solidly blue seat.
If Democrats want to win back NY-03 in the next election, they must meet voters in the district where they stand and offer them a candidate choice who more closely aligns with their ideological preferences.
Voters on Long Island are fiercely independent and a special election would be up for grabs for either major party. If Democrats put forward an establishment progressive, they will jeopardize the party’s chances of winning the next election. However, voters will support an independent moderate from either party if offered the choice.
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