When New York’s state Senate became the first Republican-controlled legislative chamber to approve gay marriage, opponents vowed to make GOP rebels pay for failing to toe the line.
Sometimes there is a price to be paid for doing the right thing - but the price is not always as high as some people fear and others hope.
New York held primary elections this week for the first time since the June 2011 vote in which four Republicans joined 29 Democrats to make same-sex marriage legal in the Empire State. The measure passed, 33-29, and furious opponents vowed to send the renegade Republicans to political oblivion.
One of the four Republicans chose to retire this year. All of the remaining three were challenged in their primaries by opponents who made an issue of their position on marriage.
But two of those three, state Sens. Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie and Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, won their primaries and should have an easy time winning re-election in their Republican-leaning districts. The third challenged senator, Roy McDonald of Saratoga Springs, lost narrowly to Saratoga County Clerk Kathleen Marchione. But McDonald will still appear on the November ballot on the Independent Party line, which gives him a chance to keep his seat if he can draw enough Democratic and unaffiliated voter support. More likely, though, the seat will fall to the Democrats.
That would be bad news for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who broke with the state’s nasty political tradition, in which the majority party leader wields iron-fisted control of legislation, and allowed the marriage measure to come to a vote despite his personal opposition.
Republicans currently hold a 33-29 edge in the chamber, which was in Democratic hands as recently as 2010. Losing the Saratoga seat, in a year in which President Obama is sure to rack up a big margin statewide, could conceivably cost Skelos and his party their control of the Senate.
Skelos and his colleagues knew this, of course, when they allowed the vote on same-sex marriage. Only a year earlier, with Democrats controlling both houses, New York lawmakers rejected a marriage bill that they deemed hazardous to their political health.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, deservedly received a lot of credit for turning things around, particularly within his own party. But he could not have pushed the marriage bill through the Legislature without the cooperation of Skelos and the other GOP senators, who knew the bill would antagonize a significant portion of their voting base. In an unusual and dramatic move, Cuomo this week endorsed McDonald for re-election over the Democrats’ own candidate, Robin Andrews – a lesbian who was married last year under the law McDonald supported.
Politics often holds such ironies. Another lies in the way certain voters in each party view the opposition. These are the voters for whom social issues trump all other concerns. They may agree with Republican positions on taxes, spending, regulation or a host of other issues, but they would never consider voting for Republican officeholders because of GOP opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The opposite also is true: there is a significant slice of voters who favor Democratic positions on fiscal issues, but whose social views make them vote as though they are staunch Republicans.
These social conservatives are the ones who are apt to feel personally betrayed by Republicans like the four New York senators who voted in favor of same-sex marriage.
Neither party would be as beholden to these socially motivated voters if other voters were more open-minded and less driven by a single issue. Democrats who look at the defeat of McDonald in the Republican primary and think, “I would never support a party that votes like that” might instead observe that, if they had voted in the GOP primary, McDonald would probably have won.
Democrats have absorbed this lesson better than Republicans in recent years. In more conservative portions of the Midwest and West, there are many Democratic officeholders who espouse conservative views on social issues. There are only a handful of Republicans in more liberal parts of the country who espouse more tolerant social views. But the actions of Skelos and his fellow New York Republicans last year hint that Republicans, at least in some places, are catching up.
Thus far, the overall price of last year’s courageous vote in New York has not been very high, at a single GOP senator. With luck, it won’t be the vote that costs Skelos his position, lest opponents of same-sex marriage and other civil rights use it to bludgeon other Republicans for years to come.
Nobody said doing the right thing is without cost, as this week’s New York voting reminds us. But nobody said it has to be prohibitively expensive, either.