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Why George Santos was too toxic for the House GOP

Why George Santos was too toxic for the House GOP

The House of Representatives won't have Republican Rep. George Santos to kick around anymore. On Friday, the chamber voted 311 to 114 to formally expel Santos (with two voting present), surpassing the two-thirds majority necessary to remove Santos from office. This marked just the sixth expulsion in House history and only the third since the Civil War.

Santos's fate may seem unsurprising, considering he faces a 23-count federal indictment that includes charges for wire fraud, money laundering and falsifying campaign finance records. Santos survived an initial floor vote to expel him on Nov. 1, but his position became more untenable after the House Ethics Committee handed down a report in mid-November that documented more alleged crimes, including redirecting thousands of dollars from campaign funds for personal use. Still, it was far from a given that the requisite 80 or so House Republicans would join most Democrats to expel Santos in a politically fraught vote that once again seemed to put their party's lack of unity in the spotlight.

Republicans had contentious internal and public deliberations over how to handle the Santos situation, in part because his ouster could have downstream political consequences. With the GOP holding just a 222-to-213 seat majority before Santos's expulsion, each Republican vote is critical to maintaining control of the chamber — a reality clearly demonstrated by the difficulties Republicans encountered when electing a speaker in January and October. Notably, the top four House GOP leaders voted against expelling Santos. Moreover, forcing out Santos will precipitate a special election in his highly competitive seat that Democrats could win to further reduce the GOP's slim majority.

But Santos proved toxic enough for many Republicans to put aside those concerns and back his ouster. Electoral politics played a part in that decision, exemplified by the support for expulsion from other New York Republicans in swing seats, whom Democrats could have more easily linked to Santos had he remained in Congress. Nonetheless, the House's choice to expel Santos prior to a criminal conviction and without a formal recommendation from the Ethics Committee broke with how the House handled expulsions in 1980 and 2002, raising concerns for some members about the precedent it could set.

Who voted to expel Santos?

The House reached the two-thirds mark to expel Santos mostly through increased support among Republicans, but also with more Democratic backing. In the previous expulsion vote on Nov. 1, the resolution failed 179 to 213, with 24 Republicans and 155 Democrats voting in favor. But on Friday, 311 supported expulsion, surpassing the threshold of 284 needed for a two-thirds majority with 425 members having voted yea or nay. The number of Republicans who backed expulsion grew to 105 votes — about half of the conference, as 112 opposed the resolution — while Democratic support increased to 206 votes, or nearly all Democrats. Notably, the Republicans most likely to vote for expulsion came from more competitive districts and were less conservative than those who voted against expulsion.

Overall, 17 of the 18 Republicans who occupy seats that President Joe Biden would have won in the 2020 election voted for expulsion, with the only exception being Santos himself. By comparison, less than half (43 percent) of the GOP members who hail from districts that former President Donald Trump would have carried backed the resolution. Using the first dimension of DW-NOMINATE, which measures how liberal or conservative members are based on their voting records, 69 percent of Republicans in the more moderate half of the party's membership backed Santos's ouster, compared to only 25 percent in the more conservative half of the GOP conference.

Ahead of the vote, more conservative Republicans, including some from the House Freedom Caucus, voiced their opposition to the resolution. Their arguments against removing Santos included worries about the GOP's slim House majority and the lack of a formal conviction, as well as complaints that the Ethics Committee report wasn't sufficiently evidence-based. But less conservative Republicans and those hailing from more competitive turf argued that Santos had been given due process and that he only had himself to blame for his alleged criminal activities and ethics violations.

Virtually all Democrats voted to expel Santos, but four broke with their party to vote no or present. The two noes, Reps. Bobby Scott of Virginia and Nikema Williams of Georgia, had previously expressed opposition because of their concerns about removing a member who had not yet been convicted and the lack of a formal recommendation. Similar concerns led Texas Rep. Al Green to vote present, while Illinois Rep. Jonathan Jackson voted present because Santos's alleged misconduct occurred during his campaign, not while in office.

Why expulsion happened this time

There's little doubt that the House Ethics Committee report detailing Santos's alleged misdeeds proved to be the tipping point for his expulsion. Primarily, it provided a firmer basis for some members to support his removal despite the lack of a criminal conviction. Within hours of the report's release, 19 Democrats and 12 Republicans who had voted no or present on the Nov. 1 expulsion resolution told Axios they would vote to expel Santos the next time around, and more members expressed support in the following two weeks. In the wake of the report, Santos announced that he wouldn't seek reelection, a reversal from his previous insistence that he would run again regardless of whether he was expelled. But despite urging from Speaker Mike Johnson, Santos said he wouldn't resign, a move that would've allowed the House to move on and avoid a divisive vote for Republican members.

Yet about half of all Republicans backed expulsion, even though the move risked reducing their already-slim majority. That suggests fears about intraparty dysfunction and governance may no longer be foremost in their minds. The two floor votes to expel Santos closely followed a chaotic October during which the GOP struggled for three weeks to coalesce behind a new speaker after a small group of Republicans launched a successful effort to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But since taking office as speaker in late October, Johnson has managed to avoid discord even while relying on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown — the same action that helped spark the series of events that dethroned McCarthy. Exhausted by party infighting, many House Republicans decided getting rid of Santos was better for the GOP than trying to guarantee one more seat in their majority.

As always, electoral politics sat at the forefront of the decision to get rid of Santos, too. Ousting him allowed the GOP to remove a potential thorn in the party's side ahead of the 2024 election, mainly in New York. Tellingly, local Republican officials on Long Island called on Santos to resign back in January, and GOP members from New York introduced the resolution to expel Santos that failed in early November. This time around, eight of the 11 House Republicans from the Empire State voted to expel Santos. And of the seven who hail from districts that Biden would have carried or that Trump won by less than 2 points in 2020, all but Santos himself backed expulsion.

New York Republicans in swing seats voted to expel Santos

Votes by House Republicans from New York on expelling Rep. George Santos on Dec. 1, 2023, by the 2020 presidential vote margin in their districts

District

Member

Voted to expel Santos

2020 pres. vote

NY-04

Anthony D'Esposito

D+14.5

NY-17

Michael Lawler

D+10.1

NY-03

George Santos

D+8.2

NY-22

Brandon Williams

D+7.5

NY-19

Marcus Molinaro

D+4.6

NY-01

Nicholas LaLota

D+0.2

NY-02

Andrew Garbarino

R+1.5

NY-11

Nicole Malliotakis

R+7.6

NY-21

Elise Stefanik

R+12.4

NY-23

Nick Langworthy

R+17.2

NY-24

Claudia Tenney

R+17.2

Source: Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Daily Kos Elections

Now, we shouldn't overstate the impact Santos might have had on the 2024 election writ large if he'd remained in office. After all, the presidential race at the top of the ticket will dominate the electoral environment. Nevertheless, many of Santos's fellow swing-seat Republicans in New York vocally backed efforts to expel him, likely hoping that acting now will save them from having to address questions or Democratic attack ads tying them to Santos on the 2024 campaign trail. In a game of electoral inches, pushing Santos out sooner rather than later gives Republicans more time to move beyond his scandal-ridden House tenure.

With Santos gone, a high-stakes special election will take place in New York's 3rd Congressional District, which Biden would have won by 8 percentage points in 2020, according to Daily Kos Elections. Under state law, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has 10 days to call the election, and from there it must take place between 70 and 80 days afterward — so sometime in February. But unlike a regular election, there won't be a primary to pick party nominees. Instead, local party officials will choose the candidates, and they may opt for contenders who were already running for the regular 2024 election before Santos's ouster. The most likely Democratic pick may be former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who defeated Santos by 12 points in 2020 in the previous version of the 3rd District before mounting a failed run for governor in 2022. The GOP doesn't have a clear front-runner, but local Republicans have been eyeing state Sen. Jack Martins since they initially called for Santos to resign.

Looking ahead, New York's ongoing redistricting litigation could also affect the electoral calculus for Santos's former seat in the 2024 general election. Democrats control state government, and, should a court decision restart the redistricting process, they could make this district bluer — just as they tried to do with an initial map they drew in early 2022 that state courts threw out ahead of that year's elections.

A rare bit of history — and a break with precedent

With Santos's departure, the House has expelled a sitting representative just six times in its history. Three of those expulsions occurred in 1861, when the House removed three members for fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1980, the House expelled Pennsylvania Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers after he was convicted of bribery and conspiracy as part of the FBI's Abscam sting operation targeting public corruption. Myers was taped accepting a payoff, during which he infamously said, "Money talks in this business and bullshit walks." And in 2002, the House expelled Ohio Rep. James Traficant after he was convicted of numerous crimes, including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. Among other charges, he'd been accused of accepting gifts and favors from businessmen in his district in exchange for helping them with federal and state agencies.

Santos is only the sixth representative ever expelled

Members expelled by the U.S. House of Representatives

Representative

Date

Conduct underlying expulsion

Vote

John B. Clark

July 13, 1861

Disloyalty to the Union (Civil War)

94-45

John W. Reid

Dec. 2, 1861

Disloyalty to the Union (Civil War)

No recorded vote

Henry C. Burnett

Dec. 3, 1861

Disloyalty to the Union (Civil War)

No recorded vote

Michael Myers

Oct. 2, 1980

Convicted of bribery and conspiracy

376-30

James Traficant

July 24, 2002

Convicted of illegal gratuity, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, defrauding the government, racketeering, and tax evasion

420-1

George Santos

Dec. 1, 2023

Alleged crimes including wire fraud, personal use of campaign funds and other campaign finance violations

311-114

Sources: Congressional Research Service, U.S. House of Representatives

Yet Santos's expulsion differed from how the House handled the cases of Myers and Traficant. Above all else, Santos hadn't yet been convicted when the chamber voted to remove him from office, whereas Myers and Traficant had already been found guilty by the time they were expelled. As we've seen, the lack of a conviction — Santos's trial won't begin until Sept. 9, 2024 — concerned members in both parties who worried about setting a problematic precedent (including Speaker Johnson, who ultimately voted against expulsion). The detailed allegations in the House Ethics Committee report ameliorated some members' concerns, although the report did not make a formal recommendation for expulsion or another appropriate punishment for Santos. By comparison, the Ethics Committee recommended expulsion in the cases of both Myers and Traficant, but only released its findings and recommendations after each had been convicted.

Even before the House expelled him, it was hard to imagine Santos winning another election, and he'd announced that he wouldn't run again. But the fact he's not campaigning in 2024 also differentiates Santos from Myers and Traficant, both of whom ran in the next election despite being removed from office. Myers had already won renomination when he was convicted in August 1980, and while the House expelled him in October, he was still on the November ballot in his Philadelphia-based seat. In Traficant's case, he was convicted in April 2002 and expelled that July, but that May the erstwhile Democrat filed to run as an independent in Ohio's general election. Both men ultimately lost their bids to return to Congress.

Beyond his alleged criminal acts and ethics violations, Santos's eventual expulsion occurred because he refused to do what many indicted or convicted members of Congress do: resign. Over the past decade, some members pleaded guilty to crimes then resigned, while others were convicted and then left office. Although a criminal conviction does not force members to resign, House rules forbid them from voting. But while Santos has not yet seen his day in court, there is also little doubt that resignation would have been a far tidier solution than an expulsion vote, both procedurally and politically. But perhaps in keeping with Santos's persona, he chose the messier approach by not voluntarily departing — instead, he unrepentantly unleashed attacks against fellow Republicans, forced his colleagues to take a tough vote and made history for all the wrong reasons.

Why George Santos was too toxic for the House GOP originally appeared on abcnews.go.com