When New York’s state Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage last week, the number of gay Americans legally allowed to marry in the country doubled, from 16 million to 32 million. The Empire State Building lit up like a rainbow, there was dancing in the streets and the bill became an excuse for pundits to speculate about the possibility of Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a presidential candidate in 2016.
But state politics in New York are not usually so high-minded. In the nation’s third-largest state, Senate seats are often won by a few hundred hard-won votes. And for the four Republican senators who voted “yes”—Jim Alesi, Roy McDonald, Mark Grisanti and Steve Saland—each of those votes is now in question.
While political insiders on both sides of the aisle agree those four would be hard to beat in a general election, a Republican primary is different. Primaries draw older, more conservative voters who are likely to oppose same-sex marriage on moral or religious grounds.
Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long has also vowed to withdraw support from any candidate who voted “yes” on marriage, taking away a crucial swath of voters. That’s a step farther than he went in 2002, when the Republican-led Senate passed a non-discrimination bill the Conservative Party opposed. In the following election, Long withheld the party’s ballot line from Sen. Dean Skelos but granted it to other senators.
But even some Democrats doubt that Long’s opposition to same-sex marriage will turn into a full-fledged war between the Conservative Party and Skelos, who is now the Senate Republican leader.
“Mike Long’s got a lot of other irons in the fire,” said a Democratic consultant. “I’m hard-pressed to see a successful vote for marriage equality turning into an Armageddon between the Republicans and the Conservatives.”
What the four Senate Republicans will have is strong support from gay rights groups, who will see the Republicans’ political survival as a badge of honor they can use to convince other lawmakers in other states to change their votes.
“No Republican lawmaker who voted yes on same-sex marriage has ever lost re-election for that vote,” said Brian Ellner, the chief strategist on the marriage bill from the Human Rights Campaign.
Marriage advocates are willing to spend anything to keep that statement accurate, no matter how difficult their races and no matter their other political leanings, he said.
“We will support a Republican senator against a Democrat,” Ellner said. “We will support a Republican senator who votes ‘yes’ against a gay Democrat.”
The stakes are high for the Republican Gang of Four as well as for same-sex marriage advocates who now must prove that their Republican allies can live to fight another day.
“If Jim Alesi and Roy McDonald end up getting beat in 2012, [marriage rights advocates] are going to have serious problems in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and wherever they go next,” a Democratic operative said of the first two Republican senators to support same-sex marriage.
New Yorkers United For Marriage, a coalition composed of gay rights groups such as the Empire State Pride Agenda and Marriage Equality New York, and underwritten in part by the Gill Action Fund, reportedly spent $3 million on the spring campaign to pass the marriage bill.
In 2009, supporters of the bill spent $1,193,275 and its opponents spent $745,371. Supporters also spent $419,678 on individual candidates last year, outstripping the bill’s opponents by tens of thousands of dollars, and the most recent campaign filings are expected to show exactly how much LGBT groups spent in the final months of their campaign for the bill’s passage.
Bill Mahoney, an analyst for the New York Public Interest Research Group, expected the amount to be the second-largest lobbying expenditure of the year.
A major opponent of same-sex marriage, the Catholic Conference, shrank from pushing back against the issue, both in terms of debate and money spent. The conference spent more lobbying to change a law to lower the statute of limitations on sexual abuse charges than it did against same-sex marriage, Mahoney noted.
The National Organization for Marriage, meanwhile, has threatened to spend $2 million to oust the four Republicans who voted for the bill, though the group has yet to follow through on its past spending threats.
“They’ve been pounding their chests since 2009,” said one Democratic operative. “You have to wonder how much is bluster and bluff, whereas the marriage equality advocates—the pro-[marriage] side—have proven time and again their ability.”
That sentiment was echoed again and again as the final week of the debate wore on, ultimately taking on the blood oath quality of a Mafia agreement.
“Let me just say this,” repeated one member of the New Yorkers United for Marriage Coalition in the halls of the Capitol last week. “We always remember our friends.”
This was evident in the days after Alesi and McDonald flipped. McDonald came out with a fundraising plea, urging supporters of “equal rights” to “stand with Roy.” Same-sex marriage advocates told their followers and supporters to “like” McDonald on Facebook, donate to his campaign and send him thank-you notes.
Alesi stands to benefit too. A few short months ago he was considered unelectable after filing a lawsuit against one of his own constituents. He was also a major target of the Senate Democrats last fall. The DSCC spent more than $300,000 backing his challenger, Mary Wilmot, in a race that Alesi won by a little more than 7,000 votes. That margin of victory was provided by the Conservative line, which he’ll certainly lose in 2012. With the right backers, marriage advocates suggested that Alesi, who is set to become a spokesman for the HRC, could make up that loss with pro-same-sex marriage voters.
Saland’s re-election could be different. Last year, Didi Barrett ran against the Hudson Valley Republican in part on the platform of same-sex marriage and Saland won handily, without needing the Conservative line to seal his victory.
But while Saland’s district, which includes Columbia and Dutchess counties, has always leaned Republican, it does include the town of Hudson, which has become a growing gay center in the past decade. Democrats targeted his seat last year largely because of its burgeoning LGBT population.
Saland will get support from those residents, said a member of the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition, who added, partly in jest: “What, are the interior decorators going to throw out Saland for voting ‘yes’ on marriage? Please.”
The senator with the most to lose is Grisanti, the Niagara Falls-area freshman whose win over Antoine Thompson last fall was one of the few shocks of the election. Grisanti campaigned in 2010 on the promise that he would not support same-sex marriage. The Conservative Party endorsement helped put him over the top last year. Next year, he will have to make up for losing the party line, as well as for betraying every voter who counted on him to stop same-sex marriage.
Grisanti’s salvation may come when Skelos sets about redrawing his district in a more favorable way. Cuomo could show his own gratitude by not challenging the lines, even potentially endorsing him for re-election. But both are long shots, and Grisanti’s fate as of now is decidedly up in the air.
In his speech on the Senate floor last Friday, Grisanti was already trying to inoculate himself against the charges of flip-flopping that may come in the future.
“Many people who voted for me will question my integrity a short time ago,” he said. “To those whose support I may lose, please note what I told you in the past and what I was telling you, I believed was the truth.”