Report: Failure to Embrace Center Led to Santos Victory
WASHINGTON — A new analysis of the 2022 electoral race that elevated admitted Republican fabricator George Santos to Congress suggests local Democratic leaders made a series of critical blunders heading into the contest, not the least of which was not running a more centrist candidate against him.
Since the election, which Santos won garnering 53.8% of the vote in New York’s 3rd Congressional District to Democrat Robert Zimmerman’s 46.2%, scores of news outlets have reported on how large swaths of the victor’s biography appear to be fabricated.
Everything about Santos, from his ancestry, education, employment record and property ownership, has come under dubious scrutiny.
And he is currently under investigation by federal, New York state and Nassau County authorities.
Of course, many of these questions were raised during the race, principally by The North Shore Leader, a local newspaper owned by Grant Lally, a Republican who had previously been the party’s nominee to represent the district.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had the same information The North Shore Leader had, information that caused Lally not only to endorse Zimmerman, but to refer to Santos as “bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy.”
The DCCC passed its 78-page opposition research file on Santos to the Zimmerman campaign, but the Democrat decided he had neither the time nor the funds to flesh out and verify the bombshell information.
Now, The Welcome Party, a new nonprofit trying to reassert the primacy of the center in the Democratic Party, has taken another look at the race, one it believes was eminently winnable — had party leaders in the state not had blinders on.
“When we started doing this work, it was from a sense that we’re always talking about the voters in the middle — the swing voters — but we don’t really do a lot of speaking with swing voters and really listening to them or studying what it takes to win their vote,” said Liam Kerr, a co-founder of The Welcome Party, during a recent conversation with The Well News.
“And that just seems like it should be the most important thing in our politics — practicing how to win people over,” Kerr said. “In a sense, we want to treat it like a science, treat it seriously.
“What we’re asking, essentially, is what parts of our democratic process did we do well, what parts did we do poorly, and what can we do differently based on what we’ve learned,” he said.
When it comes to the Santos/Zimmerman race, it’s easy to throw one’s hands up and say, ‘Why didn’t they do more opposition research?’ and that sort of thing, Kerr admitted.
“What we wanted was to take this high-profile race and look at something more basic: How did the Democrats select their candidate and what choice did the party really give to voters?” he said.
The stage was set for the race when incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi, a centrist who served as vice-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, opted not to seek reelection and instead made an ill-conceived run for New York governor.
That created an open seat in a congressional district that Joe Biden won by an 8-point margin in 2020.
At this point, Robert Zimmerman enters the story.
A communications consultant and unpaid cable news contributor, Zimmerman had been a popular member of the Democratic National Committee for 22 years and was well-known for his progressive views.
Among the other Democrats who entered the race was Josh Lafazan, who had become the youngest elected official in the state in 2012 when first elected to his local school board.
“As a member of the Nassau County Legislature, Lafazan won election three times in the 18th legislative district — which broke for Donald Trump in 2020,” the report said. “On the campaign trail in 2022, Lafazan touted endorsements from incumbent Democrat Suozzi himself, law enforcement unions and even local Republican elected officials.”
Despite this, “institutional players and special interests closed ranks around Zimmerman,” it continued.
“It was not just capital-D Democrats who drove this primary failure,” it said. “The undemocratic primary process in New York includes closed primaries (disallowing independents from participating in both parties’ nomination processes), and the 2022 primary was held on a separate day from statewide contests (including the state’s high-profile gubernatorial race).”
At this point in the discussion, it could still be argued the Democrats simply had the wrong candidate in the race.
“Of course,” Kerr said.
“In Hollywood there’s something called the Q Score, which looks at personality, and the signals you’re sending,” he said.
“But the other thing is, people ask us all the time: ‘Why do the Democrats do this?’ And, ‘Why don’t the Democrats do this?’ And when that happens, I think you have to stop and say, ‘Now, wait a minute, who are the Democrats that you are talking about?’” Kerr said.
“And that’s because both parties — though its more pronounced in the Democratic Party — have a lot of individual actors and interest groups that someone wanting to run for Congress has to talk to … and even if each of those entities acts rationally, when you aggregate all their incentives, you get a very irrational big picture,” he said.
“That’s why you get candidates who skew to one side or another. The dynamic at play here isn’t one where entities and ideologies cancel each [other] out and eventually you get to the middle,” Kerr continued.
“Now, if there was, say, a CEO of the Democrats who had a five-year plan and a set of metrics they had to hit … they likely would pick a more compelling candidate or one who has demonstrated an ability to win voters in the middle. But that’s not what we have,” Kerr said. “We have dozens and dozens of different individuals and organizations who have their own agendas.
“And it may be, in the end, that people choose to support the individual who they know, who has been around for a while, and who, for those reasons alone, they assume has a better chance of winning,” he said.
In a sense, what Kerr is talking about sounds a lot like groupthink going on inside a bubble — a bubble soon hardened by a closed primary that seems to confirm the “wisdom” of the deciders, but precluding input from the independents and more casual Democrats who might be more reflective of the will of a district of a state’s electorate.
The 3rd Congressional District is a case in point. Encompassing the western portion of Nassau County and some of Queens, New York, it’s the Long Island district where the escape afforded by the suburbs rubs right up against the encroaching challenges of New York City.
Though there are no congressional districts on Long Island that are represented by Democrats, the 3rd District for decades had the highest concentration of Democratic voters, and even managed to gain control of a city — Glen Cove, Tom Souzzi’s power base, and the township of North Hempstead — within its borders.
Overtime, however, young mothers who once went door to door to campaign for Adlai Stevenson and a generation inspired by President John F. Kennedy began to age out of the population, replaced by children who might still live in the area and who might still be Democrats, but who are more conservative and less idealistic than the preceding generation.
In its research, The Welcome Party found just how far Democratic voters in the district had moved away from their progressive past. A solid 46% said the party and its candidates should move to the center, while 33% said it should stay where it is and only 13% said it should move in a more liberal direction.
“Basically, what happened in the Santos/Zimmerman election is you had a primary election and a general election that had two almost entirely different … audiences, if you will,” Kerr said.
Later, returning to the challenges centrists face in closed Democratic primaries, he said, “If you’re about calling people in, and trying to be a uniter, and trying to bring people together to work across party lines, that may not play well. In some cases, it might, but not in every single closed primary. And that attitude or philosophical outlook certainly may not play well with any progressive activist group who wants you to seek their endorsement.
“The closed primary [in the 3rd Congressional District] played to the desires of the party establishment, which wanted to play it safe — at least what they perceived of as safe — and in the process they passed up on a young, moderate alternative candidate who would have been a better fit for voters in the district, based on our polling,” he said.
“If Democrats want to win back the 3rd Congressional District in New York in the next election, they’re going to have to meet voters in the district where they stand and offer them a candidate choice who more closely aligns with their ideological preferences,” Kerr said.
“Voters will support an independent moderate from either party if offered the choice. But if you just put forward another establishment progressive, you’re going to jeopardize the party’s chances of winning next year,” he said.
The Well News reached out to both Bob Zimmerman and the New York State Democratic Committee for comment, but received no response.