WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Rep. George Santos (R-NY) is surrounded by journalists as he leaves the U.S. Capitol after his fellow members of Congress voted to expel him from the House of Representatives on December 01, 2023 in Washington, DC. Charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with 23 felonies in New York including fraud and campaign finance violations, Santos, 35, was expelled from the House of Representatives by a vote of 311-114. Santos is only the sixth person in U.S. history to be expelled from the House of Representatives. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

The coming special election to replace Republican former Rep. George Santos in a well-educated and affluent district outside New York City will offer important clues about the political crosscurrents shaping the suburban areas that could decide the 2024 election.

Resistance to the Donald Trump-era GOP in white-collar suburban communities has allowed Democrats to perform much better than expected both in the 2022 midterms and elections through 2023. But local Democrats are warning that the Santos seat – which he won in 2022 despite President Joe Biden carrying the district two years earlier – may be tougher for the party to recapture than many national observers expect.

That’s because the biggest exception to the trend of growing Democratic suburban strength in recent years has been the Long Island suburbs of New York City. That includes the 3rd Congressional District, formerly held by Santos, who was expelled last week by the House of Representatives and faces 23 felony criminal counts, mostly for misusing campaign funds.

Since 2021, the GOP has steadily gained ground in both Nassau (the core of Santos’ former district) and Suffolk counties on Long Island, largely around concerns about crime, immigration and inflation, including the high cost of housing. The special election to replace Santos, likely to be held in February, will measure how powerful those issues remain for Republicans. It willl also test whether Democrats can reverse their decline on Long Island by presenting the Trump-era GOP as too extreme and pledging to defend legal abortion – arguments that have worked for Democrats in similar places.

“This will be a local litigation of issues with national salience,” Democratic former Rep. Steve Israel, who represented an earlier version of this seat, said in an e-mail. “The special election will be tricky for both parties. While Democrats have overperformed in recent national elections, they’ve underperformed in the past three election cycles on Long Island. Republicans have flipped seats with effective messaging on crime and migration. On the other hand, the DNA of [the district] is strongly pro-choice and rejects extremism.”

In many ways, the recent GOP surge on Long Island is a return to old patterns. After World War II, Long Island grew partly because it was more affordable and offered more spacious living opportunities than New York City (Levittown, the first postwar mass suburb, was built in Nassau County). But particularly after the 1950s, the area also grew as a classic “White flight” suburb, crowded with White families concerned about crime in the city and resistant to racial integration, particularly in the schools.

Today, Nassau and Suffolk are much more racially diverse than in those years. But Stanley Feldman, a professor of political science at Stonybrook University in Suffolk County, noted that the area remains highly segregated in both housing and its schools. “It sounds absurd, but Nassau and Suffolk have over 120 independent school districts,” Feldman said. “There’s a reason why, because it becomes very easy to draw lines around minority populations that keep most of those schools White.”

After all the social and racial upheavals of the 1960s, Republicans dominated the politics of both counties for the next few decades. The GOP almost entirely controlled the county executive position in both counties from the 1970s through the 1990s and consistently rolled up big presidential margins as well. In Nassau County especially, the Republican Party built a potent political machine that served as the home base for the colorful Al D’Amato, who defied New York’s overall Democratic tilt to win three terms in the US Senate starting in 1980.

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