Rep. George Santos, a Republican from New York, leaves his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2023.
CNN  — 

Embattled Rep. George Santos is contemplating a nightmare scenario for House Republicans: Trying to stick it out in Congress, even if he is indicted on criminal charges.

After previously signaling to Republicans he wouldn’t seek reelection, Santos has recently been telling people he is considering running for a second term, according to multiple Republican sources, and privately insists he will ultimately be cleared of all wrong-doing and that his treasurer will face scrutiny over his finances. And Chris Grant, a political consultant who once worked for an indicted former member of Congress, has advised Santos to not resign, encouraging the New York Republican to ride out his myriad legal issues, another GOP source said.

“Let me be very clear, I’m not leaving, I’m not hiding and I am NOT backing down,” tweeted Santos on Tuesday, who has been defiant despite calls for his resignation over repeatedly lying about his career, education and identity. “I will continue to work for #NY03 and no amount of Twitter trolling will stop me. I’m looking forward to getting what needs to be done, DONE!”

Adding to the intrigue about Santos’ future, the Federal Election Commission asked Santos last week to announce whether he plans to run again in 2024 after the freshman lawmaker crossed a post-election fundraising threshold that now requires him to make a formal declaration by March 14. His office declined to comment about campaign matters.

But even before Santos publicly telegraphs his next moves, top party leaders are vowing to knock Santos off and mount an aggressive effort to ensure he can’t tarnish their New York ticket, with six House Republicans in districts carried by Joe Biden in 2020 already on defense going into next year.

In New York, senior Republicans are beginning to reach out to potential primary challengers to topple Santos if he attempts to hang onto his seat. In Washington, senior Republicans are reassuring members of their party in New York that there’s no way they’ll let him be their nominee. And GOP leaders are privately hoping that the cascading revelations and potential for criminal charges will be enough to convince him to bow out and not run for reelection – even though they privately would like to see him occupy the seat for the rest of this Congress to avoid setting up a special election for a seat that could flip to the Democrats.

Part of the reason for the sense of urgency: Several New York freshmen – who were responsible for giving the GOP a House majority – will be vulnerable in 2024 and want to be talking about anyone other than Santos next year.

“George Santos will not be on any ticket in 2024,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro, a New York GOP freshman, who has said he’d vote to expel Santos if a resolution to kick him out of Congress came to the floor.

“I am confident that George Santos will not be on any ticket come 2024,” added Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a fellow Republican freshman who represents a neighboring Long Island district. “I am confident that we’ll do everything in our power to make sure we have the right candidate, the honest candidate, the truthful candidate, and the one who was honest about his entire being.”

No matter the outcome, though, Santos has put GOP leaders in a serious bind. If he does resign or is expelled, that would set up a special election in a Long Island swing district and chip away at the House GOP’s razor-thin majority, at least temporarily. But they also don’t want Santos to run for reelection in 2024, remaining a black eye on the party and allowing Democrats to link Republican candidates to Santos.

“For the good of the country and for the Republican Party, he’s got to go as quickly as possible. I don’t think he will go on his own. But there’s no way he would win the Republican primary. If he runs again, he’ll get destroyed,” said former GOP Rep. Peter King, who represented a Long Island district when he was in Congress.

“Now, here’s the problem: the longer he stays in there, the worse this is for Republicans on Long Island,” King added “We have local elections (in New York) coming up. The last thing we want to be doing is running with George Santos over our head.”

D’Esposito said of Santos’ impact on voters: “I think that there are people that are upset, they’re hurt, they feel like they’ve been duped.” He added that Republican officials need “to mend those fences” with voters to help them understand “there are good people that represent New York that they sent to Congress, and we’ll be their voice until we have a new one for the Third” Congressional District, which Santos represents.

‘We don’t want a special’

GOP leaders have so far treaded carefully when it comes to Santos, saying they will let investigations into his campaign finances and other issues play out first before taking any disciplinary action. They also agreed to give him committee seats, although Santos – who admitted to lying about key aspects of his resume – later opted to temporarily give up his assignments until he can clear his name.

“There’s a process in place. The process is going to work itself through. Then we’ll see where we are,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the House GOP’s campaign arm, which has an official policy of staying neutral in primaries. “Members who have concerns, they’re all on the record where they stand.”

Privately, top Republicans expect the situation to grow more dire for Santos.

A senior Republican member told CNN that they are waiting for Santos’ potential indictment to see if he will resign. If he doesn’t, they will deal with the problem at that time, the member said. The House Ethics Committee could also recommend expulsion or other punitive action against Santos.

In the meantime, Santos has become a punchline in GOP circles. One Republican lawmaker, when asked about a potential ethics probe into Santos, quipped to CNN: “I think he’ll be indicted before we get to him.”

But the underlying predicament is this: Republicans are worried that if Santos resigns, the district will very likely flip given that Biden carried it by eight points.

“We don’t want a special,” the senior GOP member said.

A pair of House Democrats introduced a resolution last week to expel Santos, which would require a two-thirds majority from the House. Mutiple New York Republicans, including freshman Rep. Nick LaLota, said they would vote for such a measure.

The freshmen GOP members from the New York delegation, who were pivotal to winning the GOP majority in 2022, have taken extra care to distance themselves from Santos, and were among the first Republicans to call for his resignation.

Even some Republican senators with no stakes in the game have waded into the Santos saga. During the State of the Union address, Sen. Mitt Romney was incensed when he spotted Santos in the center aisle, which would put him in a position to shake hands with the president and other powerful officials.

And so Romney confronted Santos on the floor, telling the controversial freshman: “You don’t belong here.”

Other Senate Republicans agreed.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, told CNN that “absolutely” Santos should resign “even if a portion of the allegations prove to be true.”

But even amid cratering support and growing resignation calls, including from his own constituents, Santos has been defiant.

Santos has been telling people he believes his treasurer, who has come under scrutiny for unusual campaign expenses on multiple campaigns, will ultimately be responsible for any issues related to his finances, according to Republican sources who have talked to Santos. Santos’ treasurer informed the FEC in January that she had left her position on Santos’ campaign. She did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Jockeying begins to replace Santos

Back on the ground in New York, local Republican leaders have blasted Santos, with the Nassau County Republican chairman saying he will work to ensure that the congressman is not on the ballot as his party’s nominee again. Nassau County GOP chair Joe Cairo did not return a request for comment about special election speculation.

Even before any of the revelations, the seat was already a top Democratic target: voters there went for Biden in 2020 by the highest margin of any House district currently represented by a Republicans.

But multiple top political insiders back in New York tell CNN they believe an indictment could come as early as the spring, and working on that assumption are preparing for a special election to replace Santos. If one were to occur, New York law makes for a very insider, party boss run process, which would allow the Republican and Democratic county chairs to essentially handpick their nominees rather than hold a primary.

Jay Jacobs, who serves as the Nassau County Democratic chairman in addition to being the state Democratic chairman, said he would not expect much drama around the process, if it comes. Jacobs said he expected to consult with the neighboring county chairman, Queens’ Rep. Gregory Meeks, given that about 13% of the district is contained there, and with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, as both the House Democratic leader and a New York member of Congress himself. But Jacobs said the buzz about the return of ex-Rep. Tom Suozzi, who previously held the seat and trounced Santos in the 2020 race, was “certainly interesting.”

Suozzi, who gave up his seat in Congress to make a failed primary run against Gov. Kathy Hochul, declined to comment when asked about a possible return to Washington.

Jacobs added that if there isn’t a special election, he’d be eager to go up against Santos in 2024.

“If there’s any chance he will be the nominee, you’ll be able to see it in the campaign finance filings – I’ll contribute to his campaign,” he said, while also predicting that the damage Santos has already done with voters in the district would hurt efforts to recruit anyone else.

“Maybe they’re able to find another great candidate like George Santos, with an even better résumé,” Jacobs quipped.

Republican chatter about alternatives, either in a special election or next year, has largely circulated around Jack Martins, a former Republican state senator who lost to Suozzi in 2016. Martins did not return a request for comment.

Some speculation has also circulated around Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips, but several other prominent local Republicans have already passed, officially or in private conversations.

Molinaro, the freshman Republican, said that one thing is clear: Santos can’t run again.

“I am very confident that, first the investigations I think are going to produce truth, and that truth might come as a surprise to Congressman Santos but not anyone else,” Molinaro told CNN. “And leadership and constituents in his district on Long Island have had enough. I don’t see a scenario where he runs for reelection or, quite frankly, completes his term.”