Can New York Republican Senators Count on Gay Support?



As one anti-gay marriage group sees it, they make up the bulk of “New York Senators That Betrayed Marriage.” Their bio photos appearing, black-and-white, in a newly minted flier, the four Republican senators who voted in favor of marriage equality Friday are a prime target of a campaign launched by the National Organization for Marriage — one that claims to be pouring at least $2 million into the battle.

Whether that dollar figure is accurate — or how it will be spent in the marriage equality battle at large — is an open question. NOM officials had said the organization would spend $500,000 on advertising and lobbying to fight the marriage equality campaign in New York, but insiders estimated the size of the TV buy at less than $200,000, and NOM’s ground game appeared paltry compared to the coalition of advocates that raised an estimated $2 million, more than half of it from Republicans and affiliated sources.

Still, no one takes lightly the threats from NOM and other marriage equality opponents, including the Conservative Party of New York State, which has vowed to withhold its influential endorsement of and possibly mount primary challenges against any Republican who voted for the bill. The fate of the four senators, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called “people of courage,” will send a signal to other states where advocates hope to carry momentum next, and it will provide the ultimate testimony to how the gay community treats its friends, regardless of party affiliation.

“I probably will need some significant support from anyone who wants to help me spread this message,” said James Alesi, the first Republican senator to announce he would vote yes. Since then, he has chosen to remain more visible and vocal than his three colleagues, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland, and Mark Grisanti. Alesi attended a victory party organized by the Human Rights Campaign in New York City Tuesday, and the next morning he met with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a significant marriage equality donor and contributor to state Senate Republicans.

“I may be the only Republican right now that’s willing to do this, but support will have to come from wherever it is,” said Alesi, who plans to travel the country as an emissary for marriage equality. “I know there’s going to be a lot of money and a lot of energy that will be fighting me, they’ll be fighting this message, and I think that we’re just going to have to counter it.”

During the coming months, political observers will be watching to what extent the four Republicans, who joined 29 Democrats in favor of the bill, will be supported by gay rights advocates who so fervently courted their pivotal votes on the issue. If recent history provides any guide, the senators can expect generous and solid backing from gay citizens across the political spectrum.

In the past decade, advocates have worked to create a context that shows that money, field support, and other campaign resources will be available to Republican candidates who take difficult votes, as Cuomo acknowledged when he said the four senators took a “politically more dangerous step” than Democrats. As a result, they say that among the more than 70 state Republican lawmakers who have voted for marriage equality, not one has lost his or her seat over the issue.

“The fact that these four Republicans took a risk far greater than any other Democrat took is being recognized,” said Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, which joined with HRC and three other organizations in the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition that lobbied for the new law. “I think that there will be the financial resources necessary to ensure that these senators have more resources than they did in 2010, and I believe they’ll win with a higher voter percentage.”

Berle is skeptical of a groundswell of opposition against the four state senators in similar fashion to a 2010 campaign in Iowa that led to the ousting of three state Supreme Court justices who struck down anti-gay marriage laws in a unanimous decision. The New York vote follows a high court ruling in 2005 that put the responsibility for marriage equality squarely on the state legislature, where Senate majority leader Dean Skelos called the matter a “vote of conscience” in allowing the bill to come to the floor last week.

“When you look at the 2003 Goodridge decision,” Berle said of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling finding that the state may not deny the protections and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, “you had national GOP leaders up to the president making a number of statements [in opposition]. It has been noticeable that there has not been a significant negative response among Republican leaders” to the New York victory, he said.

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