February 1, 2023 - 11:10am

Embattled New York Representative George Santos, now seated in America’s 118th Congress, endured a difficult first month in office. Despite flipping New York’s 3rd congressional district from Democratic to Republican control in the 2022 midterm elections amid a surprisingly poor showing from the GOP, Santos has yet to savour the rewards of his victory. Earlier this week, he asked to be temporarily recused from the two House committees — critical patronage and fundraising opportunities for American legislators — to which he was assigned, pending completion of various ongoing investigations into campaign and personal finance improprieties. 

The laundry list of Santos’s alleged campaign finance snafus runs the gamut from the absurd, such as using tens of thousands of campaign dollars on Brooks Brothers shirts and fancy meals, to the more serious, such as the likelihood that individual donors exceeded campaign finance limits to fund his campaign. Then there’s the matter of the nigh-innumerable lies he has told over the course of his past three years in public life, a list so extensive it could now fill a book. Is he or isn’t he gay, a drag queen, a Vogue magazine model, a brain tumour survivor, a mugging victim, and so forth? 

There is, however, only one question that matters to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, and that is how Santos intends to vote — and McCarthy knows the answer. Santos will be a reliable Republican vote in a House where McCarthy, clinging to a ten-vote majority, needs all the support he can get. This sort of “hold your nose” situation makes uncomfortable bedfellows in politics, and leads to partisans finding themselves arguing in support of inveterate liars like former North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn, who served out his first term despite a host of scandals and outright lies that now pale in comparison to Santos’s rap sheet. 

Protecting one of their own is arguably good for internal party cohesion — “Vote blue no matter who” for Democrats, “Better red than dead” for Republicans — but American general elections often hinge on the behaviour of independent voters (40% of the American electorate), and a good deal of research shows that those voters are more influenced by candidate quality than more committed partisans. The significant underperformance of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano — a roundly disliked candidate — almost certainly cost Republican senate candidate Mehmet Oz in his close race against Democrat John Fetterman, whose health and physical capacity had been ravaged by a stroke.

Per polling data aggregated by the Washington Post, Santos’s future looks bleak. If he does serve his entire term, polls show him trailing his 2022 Democratic opponent by 21 points. Among all voters, 16% say he can be an effective member of Congress. 71% of voters believe McCarthy was wrong to seat Santos on committees. 78% of voters, including 71% of Republicans, want him to resign. 

That percentage is far higher than the percentage of voters who called for the resignations of former Minnesota Senator Al Franken for sexual misconduct (50%) and former Idaho Senator Larry Craig following an arrest for disorderly conduct in an airport restroom (55%). Franken did indeed resign in 2018 and Craig, after initially expressing his intention to resign, later definitively stated that he was not gay and served the remaining year of his term prior to retiring in 2009. 

While the more cunning among them sometimes had long and successful careers, the most egregious and vulgar of the “fake it until you make it” school of charlatans were usually turfed out of office. The looming question for the newly-minted McCarthy, already weakened by a brutal fight for his position, is how much the disgraced and despised Santos’s single vote is worth. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work