Of the four Republican senators who voted for gay marriage, two were victorious in their primary battles; Erie County’s Mark Grisanti, by a significant margin, and Steve Saland from Dutchess County, who squeaked past his opponent by 107 votes. On the flip side, Roy McDonald from Saratoga County lost by a nearly identical margin of 113 votes. The fourth, Jim Alesi of Monroe County, declined to seek re-election.
As a result, a new conventional wisdom is beginning to form: Not only was voting for gay marriage a political mistake for these Republican senators but perhaps the GOP conference’s decision even to bring gay marriage up for a vote will now be perceived as a mistake.
However, that newly minted conventional wisdom could be disproved in short order. First, by winning his primary, Saland is favored to cruise to a landslide victory in November. Second, with McDonald’s loss, will Kathy Marchione, the winner of the GOP primary, who is also running on the Conservative line, win comfortably or will this once-safe Republican seat become a horse race in the general election?
Both the Saland and McDonald races underscore what we knew all along: Republicans who voted for gay marriage faced a choke point in the primaries before hitting open seas in November.
The polling data is clear: Supporting gay marriage are Democrats, independents, women, younger voters, and highly educated and upscale suburban voters, upstate as well as downstate. White Catholic and Jewish voters in the more affluent suburbs have become the fulcrum point for this surge in public support. Opposing gay marriage are evangelical and mainline white Protestants, Orthodox Jews, as well as older voters from small towns and rural communities. In the August 2011 Marist poll after the bill was passed, voters opposed overturning the law by 63–32 percent, including by 69–24 percent in the suburbs.
Republicans supported overturning the law by 48–47 percent. That left Republican candidates on the horns of conflicting tensions between what works for them in primaries versus general elections.
Which brings us to the second political reality. Had gay marriage not passed in 2011 because no Republicans joined the 29 Democrats in support, the proponents of gay marriage would have had only one conclusion to draw—enacting gay marriage would necessitate electing more Democrats to the state Senate.
Given the large number of swing districts from the suburbs, where Democrats are already benefiting from party registration gains—not to mention swelling ranks of independents as well as growing shares of minority voters—if gay marriage supporters put both hard dollars and high-octane energy into Democratic state Senate campaigns, this issue could have adversely affected Republican prospects this November. Thus, passing gay marriage certainly redounded to the political benefit of Senate Republicans.
Third, the beneficiaries of gay marriage being enacted into law within the Senate’s GOP conference were the senators from downstate suburbs. Yet none of these senators voted for gay marriage in 2011. The Saland and McDonald votes were “profile in courage” votes, precisely because their upstate districts included large numbers of small-town and rural voters predisposed to vote against gay marriage in a Republican primary.
Furthermore, if either Maine or Maryland becomes the first state to pass a statewide referendum in favor of same-sex marriage this November, that will send a quite different message than the one sent by less than one quarter of Republican primary voters in the Saland and McDonald districts. In fact, the Senate Republican leadership was most astute in working with Gov. Cuomo to allow same-sex marriage to come up for a vote. To do otherwise would have failed to abide by Jimmy Breslin’s old admonition that in politics you don’t succeed when your mantra becomes “November don’t count.”
Consequently, before locking in on September’s conventional wisdom regarding the politics of same-sex marriage, I would advise awaiting the voter’s ultimate judgment in November. In politics, the real truths are revealed when the frost hits the pumpkin patch at Halloween.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant at Corning Place Communications in Albany and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.