Can a Republican vote gay—and stay in office?
That’s the question rattling around New York political circles today after a state primary that saw three of the four GOP state senators who flipped their votes and provided the crucial margin to bring marriage equality to the Empire State squeak by with the narrowest of margins—if that—in their first time facing the voters since the bill passed.
Roy McDonald, a 10-year veteran of Albany from the Saratoga Springs area, finds himself trailing Saratoga County Clerk Kathy Marchione by about 130 votes. McDonald famously told reporters back in June 2011 when he voted for the marriage equality bill: “Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics.”
Marchione blasted McDonald in the campaign for breaking “his promise to defend traditional marriage.” As of late Friday, the vote was headed towards a recount.
Steven Saland, an 11-term state senator from the Hudson Valley, cast the deciding vote for marriage equality after saying on the Senate floor that to do otherwise “would fly in the face of my upbringing.” On Friday, he found himself up only 42 votes against a conservative challenger who described himself in his campaign literature as a “100 percent pro-family.” After a counting of absentee ballots, a recount is likely there, too.
Mark Grisanti, a first-term Buffalo-area state senator won by a comfortable margin against a little-known opponent, but backers of traditional marriage promised to support a third-party candidate in the general election just to deny him a victory.
Only Jim Alesi emerged unscathed. The eight-term state senator retired rather than face Republican primary voters.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When the four bucked their party leadership, renounced their longstanding opposition and voted to bring gay marriage to New York, they were hailed far and wide as the fearless four, touted for their courage and independence. Their votes came after marriage equality failed in the legislature in 2009, and Andrew Cuomo made it a major focus of his first term in office. Supporters of the bill launched a months-long, full-throated lobby campaign, complete with celebrity pitchmen like Lady Gaga and Larry King. After voting with the Democrats to legalize same-sex marriage, the four GOP senators were granted long, loving profiles in The New York Times Magazine and Time. Mayor Mike Bloomberg threw a pricey fundraiser for them in Manhattan. Gay marriage backers assured them that they would remember their vote for every Election Day hence—even if the candidates were running against Democrats.
“We are in it for the long haul with any supporter of gay marriage,” Brian Ellner, the lead lobbyist behind the effort, said in June 2011 as he was trying to convince the four to support the bill. “We have not lost a single supporter because of their support of marriage equality in an election and we are certainly not going to start now.”
But the results so far have left supporters of gay marriage fearful that the primary will dissuade other Republicans around the country from supporting same sex marriage.
“Primaries bring out conservatives. That is what you saw last night,” said William F.B. O’Reilly, a prominent Republican strategist who supports marriage equality. “In this whole issue you have a division between classic, Lincoln Republicans who believe in civil rights and conservatives who say that we need to protect our traditional institutions. Last night you saw the crashing of those two forces.”
The results may also confirm fears that outside of liberal enclaves on the coasts, the support of same-sex marriage is overstated. Thirty-one times the issue has been placed before voters in statewide referenda around the country, and 31 times voters have rejected marriage equality. The only states in which gay marriage is legal are those in which either the legislature or the courts have legalized it.
Gay rights advocates from across the U.S. could be forgiven for assuming that the New York primary yesterday would go the other way. The state is, after all, one of the most liberal in the nation, the home of Rockefeller Republicanism. The issue wasn’t on the ballot.
But anti-gay-marriage groups like the National Organization for Marriage used the little-noticed primary to send a message to Republicans around the country who are thinking of switching over. “The message we sent was pretty simple,” said Brian Brown, executive director of NOM. “If you are a Republican and you vote for [gay] marriage, you are going to lose.”
Brown estimated that his group poured close to half a million dollars into the three races in hard and soft money.
Still, that was nothing compared to what the four GOP flippers received. McDonald and Saland raised close to half a million dollars each in the months following the vote, besting their previous fundraising totals by several multiples. Dollars poured in from around the country.
“We are in jubilation over here,” said Brown. “I don’t think a Republican Senate incumbent has been defeated [in New York] in probably 40 years. From day one we said any Republican who voted to defend gay marriage would be voting to end their career and we were right. The folks who promised them money, and sold them on the idea that money would win elections were lying through their teeth.”
Supporters of marriage equality have urged caution in reading too much into one low-turnout primary. Elections, they point out, are complicated, and one factor alone is rarely enough to determine if someone wins or loses. McDonald, say some election watchers, was punished by Republicans for being too close to labor unions, while Saland didn’t run a nimble campaign.
Alan Van Capelle, a former head of Empire State Agenda, a prominent gay rights group, says marriage equality is a long-term battle, and won’t be determined by one primary. “The fight for freedom and equality has never been easy,” he said. “I don’t know of a single fight for justice and equality that hasn’t involved sacrifice.”
Van Capelle said that the three supporters of marriage equality were provided with “unprecedented levels of support,” even if many gays had to swallow their pride to back a member of the GOP. He added that no election is guaranteed: “Did we promise someone that if they voted for marriage equality they would win their next election? No. But I hope those in tough spots right now felt like their vote was worth it.”
Brown and his allies dismiss such talk as sour grapes. “There is no other way to spin this,” he said. “This is a disaster for supporters of gay marriage.”