May 11, 2023 - 3:30pm

The Republican Party faces a reckoning as its association with serial fabulist George Santos takes a turn for the worse. The New York Representative, who is openly gay (though even this is in dispute) and maintains an interest in drag pageantry, was briefly viewed after his election as a beacon of Republican resurgence — a diverse candidate whose success before the voters suggested a broadening of the party’s base. 

Now, though, Santos has been arrested by federal authorities and stands accused of 13 counts of wire fraud, money laundering, stealing public funds, and lying on federal disclosure forms. He is increasingly a political pariah whose lingering presence taints the party he vowed to represent — and one that, while clinging to a slim majority in the House of Representatives, desperately needs his vote.

Despite the mounting charges, Santos insisted on his innocence on Wednesday, channeling Donald Trump by attributing the accusations to political manoeuvring. He decried his predicament as a “witch hunt” and said he still intends to run for re-election. The allegations surrounding Representative Santos eerily recall the scandal that several years ago engulfed former Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois, underscoring the unfortunate reality that political malfeasance is not exclusive to any one party.

In 2012, Jackson abruptly took medical leave from Congress, which later turned out to be due to his struggle with bipolar disorder. However, his personal difficulties were soon eclipsed by legal ones. Federal prosecutors and FBI agents initiated an investigation into the politician for alleged financial improprieties, specifically the misuse of campaign funds. 

Following his own re-election to another term, Jackson — who proved you can indeed win re-election under any circumstances, provided you have party support — resigned, acknowledging both his health problems and the ethics investigations. Not long thereafter, he signed a plea agreement related to charges very similar to those levelled at Santos: fraud, conspiracy, making false statements, mail fraud, wire fraud, and criminal forfeiture. He served a little under two years in prison. At the time, Jackson was an important vote, if nothing else, for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was then contesting a narrow Republican majority. 

By virtue of his own status as a key vote — perhaps all that really matters for a legislator, in the final analysis — Santos still enjoys some support within his party. The House Republican leaders, wrestling with the challenges of a razor-thin majority, have largely thrown their weight behind Santos. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a critical figure in this saga, reluctantly conceded that he wouldn’t back Santos’s re-election bid following the news of his arrest. However, he stopped short of demanding an immediate resignation — with a clash over the debt ceiling looming, McCarthy needs a few more months of Santos’s vote.

The reluctance within the GOP to sever ties with Santos presents a disturbing picture. It signals an alarming willingness within the party to shield one of their own, even at the risk of compromising their own moral standing, as they deal with the much more daunting prospect of having a baggage-laden candidate like Donald Trump leading their ticket in 2024. McCarthy, clinging desperately to a precarious ten-vote majority, risks prioritising the sanctity of party unity over the pursuit of ethical conduct. 

Even if that ship has sailed for both parties, continuing to keep a liability like Santos around risks further damage to the GOP’s reputation. More importantly, this gamble could alienate independent voters, a small but important demographic which often values the quality of a candidate over strict party loyalty and can swing elections in districts like Santos’s. 

In the end, party leaders are left with a question that is as moral as it is political: is the cost of a single vote worth the potential harm to standing and trust among voters? In the hyper-polarised world of 2024, alas, the answer will most likely be yes, even if the damage is significant.

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