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Why the George Santos fiasco points to Democrats’ political malpractice

The Republican is in the hot seat over claims that he may have lied about his past, but it’s Democrats who have egg on their face if it's all true.
George Santos campaigns in Glen Cove, N.Y. , on Nov. 5, 2022.
George Santos campaigns in Glen Cove, N.Y. , on Nov. 5.Mary Altaffer / AP file

There is no denying that Rep.-elect George Santos of New York’s 3rd Congressional District is in the hot seat after an explosive New York Times report called into question many key elements of the Long Island Republican’s credentials, including, notably, some of the firms where he claimed to have worked as well as an educational degree he purportedly attained. 

Moreover, as the Times article suggests, Santos’ involvement in a check-fraud case in Brazil (to which he confessed and was charged), his involvement in a nonprofit that apparently does not exist, as well as a spate of evictions for failing to make rent payments on time paint a portrait of a small-time con artist, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s hardly the profile that voters from either party look for when electing lawmakers. Faced with this avalanche of accusations, lawyers representing Santos have tried to push back by characterizing the Times’ story as nothing more than a smear job, although they have yet to provide any hard evidence that rebuts the reporting.

If a guy like Santos can win elections unchecked, it’s reasonable to ask how many other Republican candidates with similar fictional origin stories have been able to coast into positions of power over the years.

Although this episode is no doubt an embarrassment for the New York Republicans who nominated Santos and will now have to deal with the political and potential legal fallout stemming from these allegations — with a razor-thin margin in the House, every seat will be absolutely critical to incoming GOP leadership — it’s really the Democrats who have egg on their face in the story.

I worked in the rough and tumble of New York politics for nearly a decade, initially on Mike Bloomberg’s first campaign for mayor in 2001 and then later as an adviser and a deputy commissioner during his first two terms in office. It’s absolutely astonishing that Democrats — not only the staffers working for Robert Zimmerman, the Democratic-endorsed candidate who lost the district to Santos by over 8 points, but the operatives from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who are charged with coordinating and helping out candidates in tight races nationwide — could so completely miss all of these glaring holes in Santos’ backstory.

Just about every campaign that I have ever seen up close on a local, state or federal level has someone or indeed an entire team of individuals dedicated to what campaign insiders refer to as “oppo,” or “opposition research.” It’s part of the blocking and tackling of politics — you have to know who you’re up against. 

Often that means digging into opposing candidates’ backgrounds to see if their positions have changed over time or if there are certain things in their past that they have conveniently decided against disclosing. It means going through their past tax returns (assuming they have been made available) and combing through news articles or even old high school and college yearbooks. Maybe even tracking down an old girlfriend or boyfriend. It even means trailing them at campaign events and seeing if they say or do anything off-script when they think no one is recording or paying attention when they let their guard down.

But first and foremost, oppo is all about digging into the opposing candidates’ backgrounds and parsing every line on their résumés. Did they really attend and graduate from the school with the degree that they said they did? Did they actually work where they said they did and achieve all the tremendous things that they claimed in their campaign flyers or TV ads? Are they exaggerating something or sidestepping some inconvenient truth? That’s what good oppo researchers live to find out.

And in the case of Santos, it appears that Democrats failed to look into not one but an entire range of allegedly dubious claims made by the congressman-elect. Even more astonishing — and indeed puzzling for Democrats — is the fact that this wasn’t Santos’ first rodeo. In 2020, he lost his bid for the same House seat to Democrat Tom Suozzi, who ended up trouncing Santos by double digits.

As an incumbent with what should have been a fairly sophisticated campaign operation, how did Suozzi’s team also fail to uncover the apparent Chicxulub-sized gaps in Santos’ résumé? (It seems entirely unlikely that Suozzi’s team knew about Santos’ seemingly spotty past and failed to share it with Zimmerman’s team or DCCC operatives.) 

Moreover, what does all this say about Democrats’ overall political operation not only in New York state but nationwide? If a guy like Santos can win elections unchecked, it’s reasonable to ask how many other Republican candidates with similar fictional origin stories have been able to coast into positions of power over the years. It appears that Democrats, at least in this case, have been asleep at the wheel for some time. More broadly, it calls into question whether current Democratic Party leadership has committed more than just this single unforced error and whether they could have come even close to keeping control of the House. This Santos case should force some real self-examination on the part of Democrat’s political operations.

This is not to say that the Times story won’t sting Republicans. GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has famously decried “candidate quality” as being one of the reasons Republicans failed to take back the Senate and certainly much remains to be said about how House ethics probes will treat the Santos case. But with an already slim GOP majority in the next Congress, it would be foolish to think Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and other House leaders will be in any hurry to censure or remove Santos and force a special election in an ordinarily reliably Democratic district. 

For Republicans, however, the burning question in the Santos imbroglio is whether they, too, were hoodwinked by him, or did they know or suspect that there were holes in his résumé and just preferred to look the other way? In the end, this story highlights how both parties have some questions they need to ask themselves.

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Ballotpedia, the bible of all-things campaign- and election-related, asks candidates to complete a “Candidate Connection Survey” in which they are free to respond to a series of open-ended softball questions. One question posed to Santos in 2022 was, “If you could be any fictional character, who would you want to be?” to which he responded, “Captain America.” But thanks to the Times’ reporting, we now know that this question may have been unnecessary, as Santos seems to have been playing a fictional character on the campaign trail — one of his very own creations.