And as scrutiny of Santos has intensified, he’s reached out to others at the club.
The club’s president, Gavin Wax, who, per FEC records, gave $500 to Santos’ joint fundraising committee in September, told POLITICO that the congressman called him last weekend. “He didn’t say much beyond how stressed he is and asking me how I’ve been,” Wax said. “I think he just wanted to speak to someone.”
But like others in conservative circles, even The New York Young Republican Club is distancing itself from Santos amid revelations that he fabricated numerous parts of his résumé, including false claims that he attended New York University and worked for Goldman Sachs. Santos has admitted that he has embellished his biography, but he has argued that others in politics have done the same.
Wax said the club won’t endorse Santos if he runs again in 2024, though unlike a number of New York House Republicans, it is not calling for his resignation. He described Santos’ relationship with the club as one of “self-interest” because of its influence in the district. He questioned whether the freshman congressman had fixed beliefs, saying he was “trying to play all sides” but aligned himself with the far right because that’s the coalition he thought would be most useful. He said that members suspected Santos was exaggerating his biography but that they kept him in the loop because he “was able to back it up with money.”
“The thing that made him good at being a con man was that he could align himself with whatever group he was addressing,” Wax said. As for that money he gave, he added, “I wish I got it back.”
A spokesperson for Santos, who is under investigation over his finances amid questions about how he was wealthy enough to lend his campaign $700,000, did not return a message seeking comment.
The relationship that has developed over time between Santos and The New York Young Republican Club is a microcosm of the odd place the congressman has found himself within the larger conservative firmament. Hoping to stay afloat politically, Santos has sought to forge alliances with some of the movement’s more extreme institutions and members. But it’s not entirely clear if they’re all that interested in having him in their ranks.
The degree to which Santos agrees ideologically with those extreme elements of The New York Young Republican Club is difficult to know. He embraced the group’s endorsement of his fledgling campaign in 2021, with the press release citing his commitment to fighting socialism — and a promise to not take a salary in Congress.
One New York Republican leader granted anonymity to speak freely about party tensions said Santos, who is gay, at times clashed with other members of the club over “values.”
“There were some individuals in that group that don’t support gay marriage, there was a little bit of contention there. George was offended because he didn’t feel like anybody stepped up,” the leader said.
And while some members of the New York Young Republican Club have chronicled meetings with far-right European leaders on social media, Santos largely avoided that issue in public. When Hungary’s autocratic leader, Viktor Orbán, spoke at CPAC in August, Santos joked about him on Twitter — with “no disrespect,” he wrote in the tweet.
But within the city’s GOP circles, it is believed that the group served as a springboard to help the congressman pull off the win in his congressional race this past November. A New York Republican leader, granted anonymity to talk freely about intraparty tensions, said Wax in particular has proved to be a steady ally to Santos through the tumult.
“George’s inner circle has changed at least two or three times since [the summer],” said the Republican leader. “The consistent people have been Gavin and Vish [Burra].”
Despite its innocuous sounding name, the New York Young Republican Club is known for its support of far-right figures. The group recently endorsed Orbán, and Wax spoke at a December gathering that featured white nationalists from the U.S. and Europe, including members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has faced scrutiny in its own country for extremist ties. Santos also attended, along with a newly elected Florida House member, Cory Mills.
Domestically, it has closely aligned itself with former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon and “Pizzagate” conspiracist Jack Posobiec. Burra, who is working for Santos in Washington, is a former producer of Bannon’s podcast who touts a role in exposing “the Hunter Biden ‘laptop from hell.’”
In the process, the club has gained political clout on the right. Within the past few years, Wax grew the group from a political backwater with a small membership to a robust kind of Junior League for Manhattan Republicans who flock to events like “Wine Wednesday” and gather at a midtown clubhouse with exposed brick walls and a vintage tin ceiling.
In addition to Santos, the group counts New York GOP Reps. Elise Stefanik, Claudia Tenney and Marc Molinaro among its members, as well as the newly elected Rep. Mike Collins (R-Ga.), a reflection of the group’s integration with the Republican Party. The club’s board members include Tyler Bowyer, who was among the Trump allies who signed fraudulent electoral vote certificates sent to Congress as part of the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. There’s also Michelle Malkin, a longtime conservative pundit who has appeared at events with white nationalists including a former Ku Klux Klan lawyer.
Wax doesn’t hide from these associations — he touts them as evidence of political cachet. He said the club rejects the “premise and narrative” that endorsements of Orbán and others “are beyond the pale and outside of polite society.”
“If you believe the Trump wing is racist, then there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “They’re big names in the conservative right wing of the party. If that’s the new level of controversy then, sure, we’re controversial.” Of the December event with European officials from parties with authoritarian influences, Wax said: “We reject the premise and narrative that these parties are beyond the pale and outside of polite society.”