Why Kevin McCarthy Can’t Lose George Santos

The Republican Party in Santos’s Long Island district wants him out. The speaker has other ideas.

A photo of George Santos sitting alone as many congresspeople converse around him
Alex Brandon / AP

The Republican Party has had no better friend than Nassau County in the past few years.

Of America’s largest counties, few have turned more sharply toward the GOP than New York City’s neighbor to the east. This collection of Long Island suburbs swept Democrats out of local office in 2021, and last fall, Nassau County voted resoundingly Republican in New York’s gubernatorial race. Most important for the national GOP, the county helped elect three Republicans to Congress, including two candidates who flipped Democratic seats in districts that President Joe Biden had carried in 2020.

Representative George Santos was one of those recent winners, and now Nassau County Republicans are worried that his abrupt fall from grace will cost the GOP far more than the seat that his lies helped the party pick up in November. They want Santos to step down, even though that means his seat would be vacant until a special election later this year, which the Democrats would aggressively contest. Local Republicans are flummoxed that national party leaders, starting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, haven’t joined their united call for Santos to resign. And they see McCarthy’s continued tolerance of Santos as an attempt to hold on to a Republican vote in the near term without enough consideration for whether he’d lose it—and cause Republicans to lose many others—in the longer term.

“It’s the right thing to do morally, ethically, and politically,” former Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican who represented the district next to Santos’s in the House for 28 years, told me about trying to oust Santos. “If you want to keep controlling the Congress, you can’t just have the short-sighted view that you need his vote next week or next month. You’re gonna lose all the votes in two years when you’re no longer in the majority.”

With 2024 in mind, and as the list of Santos’s biographical fabrications grows (seemingly by the day), Nassau County’s GOP machine has treated the congressman-for-now as a boil to be lanced.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s nonexistent. I will not deal with him. I will not deal with his office,” Bruce Blakeman, the Republican who was elected Nassau County executive in 2021, told me. Last week, Blakeman joined a group of local GOP leaders, including county Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo and Representative Anthony Garbarino, in demanding that Santos resign.

Yet for the moment, the political imperatives of Long Island Republicans no longer align with those of McCarthy, who plainly cannot afford to lose Santos’s vote with such a narrow margin in the House. Santos backed McCarthy in all 15 ballots for speaker earlier this month, and McCarthy’s allies rewarded him with a pair of committee assignments earlier this week. The new speaker said that Santos has “a long way to go to earn trust” but has made no move to sanction him.

“The voters of his district have elected him. He is seated. He is part of the Republican conference,” McCarthy told reporters last week.

Democrats have already filed a complaint about Santos with the House Ethics Committee, and he is under investigation by federal and local prosecutors in New York who are reportedly looking into whether he committed financial crimes or violated federal campaign-disclosure laws.

Santos has defied calls to resign, and McCarthy might need his vote even more should another House Republican, Representative Greg Steube of Florida, miss an extended period of time after he sustained serious injuries from a 25-foot fall off a ladder earlier this week.

McCarthy’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which traditionally backs GOP incumbents, echoed McCarthy’s ambivalence toward Santos. “Voters in New York will have the final say on who represents them,” NRCC spokesperson Jack Pandol told me by email. “Rep. Santos will have to earn back their trust as he serves them in Congress.”

King and others in Nassau County are trying to impress upon McCarthy that the longer he stands by Santos, the more damage he will do to a Republican brand that has been on the rise. “The only reason Kevin McCarthy has the majority is because of the very close marginal seats that Republicans won in New York,” King said. “We can lose all of them in the next election.”

Even if McCarthy wanted to force Santos out, however, there’s not much he can do. He could try to expel him, but that would take the support of two-thirds of the House, and members of both parties might be leery of setting precedent by kicking out a member who has not been charged, much less convicted, of a crime. King suggested that McCarthy insist on an expedited investigation by the Ethics Committee—the panel’s probes tend to drag on for months—but there’s little history of that either.

Election to the House “is an unshakable contract for two years,” Doug Heye, a former House GOP leadership aide who has advised lawmakers ensnarled in ethics investigations, told me. “Unless two-thirds of the House say, ‘Get out of here,’ or you give it up yourself, nothing happens.”

Santos has almost no incentive to leave of his own accord anytime soon, especially now that Long Island Republicans have all but foreclosed the possibility of his winning renomination to his seat. “He’s not going to have a career. He’s not going to have a public life, and he’s going to be ostracized in his own community,” Blakeman told me. Santos was wealthy enough to lend his campaign $700,000. But his present personal finances are, like so much else about his life, a mystery, so he may need the paychecks that come with a $174,000 annual salary. And his seat could be a crucial bit of leverage in potential negotiations with prosecutors, Heye noted; resigning his seat, in that scenario, could help him avoid other penalties, including prison time.

As his struggle just to get the speakership demonstrated, McCarthy doesn’t exactly have an ironclad grip on his conference. The Republicans from Nassau County seem to realize that the new speaker has limited sway over Santos. But McCarthy’s decision to protect and even validate Santos’s standing inside Congress is at odds with a party clinging both to its House majority and to its precarious stronghold on Long Island. “I’ve dealt with people with all sorts of issues,” Blakeman told me,” and enabling them is not a good thing.”