Finding a Santos Successor Is Proving No Simple Task for Republicans

If New York Republicans had hoped to quickly and cleanly turn the page on the embarrassing saga of George Santos, the week since his expulsion from Congress has not exactly gone as planned.

While party leaders hunkered down in the Long Island suburbs to game out the critical special election to replace him, it emerged that one of their top candidates for the nomination, Mazi Melesa Pilip, was not technically a Republican at all, but a registered Democrat.

Another Republican who had entered the race earlier this year was convicted of taking part in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Word leaked that party officials were interviewing a more serious contender: a former state assemblyman known to have potentially damaging ties to Mr. Santos through a bizarre business proposition that one person involved said resembled the classic email scheme with a Nigerian prince.

And records were unearthed in news reports showing that another front-runner, Mike Sapraicone, had not only been sued for suppressing evidence in a murder case as a New York City police officer but later made political contributions totaling $40,000 to an unexpected recipient: the race’s Democratic nominee, Tom Suozzi.

The torrent of revelations washed away the message of order and unity that top Republicans sought to project in the wake of Mr. Santos’s hurricane. And suspicions that many of the unsavory disclosures about the candidates had been seeded in the press by rival Republican camps left some fretting that the party was playing straight into Democrats’ hands.

“It definitely looks messy,” said Chapin Fay, a Republican political consultant advising some of the candidates. “Just let the Republicans kill themselves even before a candidate is chosen.”

In many ways, the Republicans’ predicament is the result of their determination to avoid a repeat of Mr. Santos. The federally indicted serial fabulist slipped past Republican and Democratic vetters in 2020 and 2022, winning the seat connecting Queens and Nassau County last fall before his entire life story began to unravel as a series of fictions and outright frauds.

Joseph G. Cairo Jr., the Nassau County Republican chairman leading the selection process, views Mr. Santos as a stain on his personal record. He said he would likely only select a candidate already well known to the party and has also retained outside help from research firms to identify major vulnerabilities before making the nomination.

“There’s a personal thing to some people that, Hey, a mistake was made, this guy has blemished our party, this is our chance to correct it,” Mr. Cairo said in a recent interview, expressing confidence that the party would unite behind the best candidate.

But that takes time, and as Mr. Cairo’s deliberations stretch into another week, candidates and their allies appear to have taken matters into their own hands, as they hunt for damaging information to boost their cause or hurt a rival’s. Property records have been checked. Old podcasts dug up. Voting records scrutinized.

Even Mr. Santos took a break from recording lucrative videos on Cameo to stir the pot, urging his followers to call Mr. Cairo to insist that he not select “a Democrat in Republican skin” like Ms. Pilip or Mr. Sapraicone.

Democrats have had their own awkwardness. On Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul made Mr. Suozzi drive to Albany to all but grovel for her support. But there was never really any doubt that the well-known former congressman would be his party’s pick, and Democrats quickly united around his nomination.

Mr. Fay, who began his career as an opposition researcher, argued that “mudslinging” now could actually help inoculate the eventual Republican nominee against key weaknesses by the time the Feb. 13 special election heated up.

For Ms. Pilip in particular, who has become a top contender on the strength of a remarkable political biography, being outed as a registered Democrat may not be such a bad thing in a district that leans slightly left. In fact, crossover appeal has helped before: Ms. Pilip, a Black former member of the Israel Defense Forces, flipped a local legislative district in 2021 while running on the Republican Party ballot line.

In a statement, Mr. Cairo indicated that Ms. Pilip’s registration, which was first reported by Politico, was known to party leaders. He said they had long supported her because she was “philosophically in sync with the Republican team.”

In another reflection of her status as a formidable candidate, an unsigned, untraceable email was sent to multiple reporters Friday morning seeking to tarnish her name by including a link to a photograph on social media of Ms. Pilip embracing Mr. Santos.

The hits on other Republican hopefuls may be more problematic.

Take Mr. Sapraicone. On Monday, Politico reported on a 2021 lawsuit accusing him and other former New York Police Department detectives of having coerced a false confession and suppressed exonerating evidence that kept a man behind bars for two decades. (He denied knowing about the suit.)

On Wednesday, an old news report resurfaced about his donations to Mr. Suozzi. And on Thursday, Politico ran another item reporting how on a podcast earlier this year, the Republican described once being afraid of a police officer because he was Black. The Sapraicone campaign said he had shared the story to show how he had grown to embrace “diverse communities” as a police officer.

In an interview, Mr. Sapraicone said he was determined not to get rattled.

“This is all new water to me,” he said. “I see these sharp elbows coming left and right here. I don’t think any of this stuff is productive no matter where it’s coming from.”

Philip Sean Grillo, who declared his candidacy in May, certainly did not help the party’s cause when he was convicted in the Jan. 6 case. A wave of headlines tied him to Mr. Santos and the special election, though his candidacy has never been taken seriously.

Party leaders also had to contend with sticky potential issues in private involving more serious candidates, like Michael LiPetri, the former Republican state assemblyman. Mr. LiPetri is well liked within Long Island Republican circles, but his nomination would almost certainly open the party to more Santos-tinged attacks.

The New York Times reported last summer that Mr. LiPetri worked with Mr. Santos to approach a campaign donor with an unusual proposition. They asked the donor to create a limited liability company to help a wealthy unnamed Polish citizen buy cryptocurrency while his fortune was evidently frozen in a bank account. The deal never went through.

Mr. LiPetri, who sought to play down his role when The Times initially disclosed his involvement, did not respond to requests for comment.

Gleeful Democratic operatives said they could package any of the disclosures into general election ammunition if given the opportunity.

“We wish the Grand Old Party the best in their flailing endeavors,” said Ellie Dougherty, a spokeswoman for House Democrats’ campaign arm, calling the other side “dysfunctional.”

But not every Republican was worrying. One veteran of hard-fought campaigns on Long Island said his fellow Republicans should quit the hand-wringing.

“All the sniping between the people who support X and Y and Z?” said the Republican, former Senator Alfonse D’Amato. “Doesn’t mean anything in the finals.”

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