NY9: It Wasn’t About Marriage, But Marriage Was an Issue



The fact that Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, faced opposition from his own religious community over his marriage equality vote would appear to send a chilling message to politicians concerned about holding their base. But observers seem reluctant to draw parallels between a special election in heavily Democratic New York City and the four upstate Republican senators who voted for marriage equality in June.

“I don’t think it means much,” said one Republican strategist. “These guys need to survive a Republican primary and they need to survive a general election. Their lens is to survive a Republican primary. In a Democratic primary, it shouldn’t be an issue at all. You really don’t have the same potential vulnerability.”

The outcome in the 9th congressional district breaks a losing streak for NOM, which suffered defeat in a special election in New York earlier this year. The group spent $6000 in an attempt to defeat Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who upset Republican assemblymember Jane Corwin in a special election upstate to replace ex-congressman Chris Lee, who also resigned after an online sex scandal. The race also paralleled the contest in the 9th district in less salacious ways, such as the backgrounds of the losing candidates.

“Assemblymembers are not great special election candidates, especially in a special election where people are focused on the national politics,” said the Republican strategist. “And especially when the candidate is from the state legislature, which has a terrible reputation.”

Like in New York’s 26th congressional district, neither Weprin nor Turner focused on marriage equality, and the issue failed to register in most of their public debates, including a televised match sponsored by NY1 last week that promised the largest potential audience. The candidates mainly stuck to the theme of the economy and their different interpretations on how to improve it. Meanwhile, high-profile Democrats like former President Bill Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned for Weprin, while the national Republican Party also took an interest in the race that insiders estimated would end up costing as much as $10 million.

At points, Weprin complicated matters for himself among his LGBT backers, such as when he told an early debate audience in Queens that he believed marriage should be decided on a state-by-state basis. He also expressed support for a lawsuit that challenges the state Senate procedures surrounding the marriage equality vote in an interview with a Jewish news outlet.

While inarticulate at times, marriage equality advocates still viewed him favorably from his days in the City Council, and his election presented the opportunity to demonstrate that the LGBT community stands by its allies, even if the congressional seat stands a chance of being eliminated in redistricting next year. The Human Rights Campaign, one of the organizations that led the push for marriage equality in New York, contributed $5,000 to Weprin, the maximum allowed for a federal PAC, and urged its members to canvass the district for him.

“As Bob Turner said during the campaign, 'The gay marriage issue is closed; it's New York state law,’” said Brian Ellner, senior strategist for HRC in New York. “Regardless of who won tonight, a strong majority of New Yorkers support marriage equality.”

On Tuesday morning, HRC sent a memo that argued marriage equality played no role of significance in the race. The organization noted polling, the rhetoric from the candidates, and the fact that Weiner, who held the seat for 12 years until his resignation, maintained popularity despite his vocal support for marriage equality.

“Whoever wins tonight, marriage equality did not play an influential, even modest, role in the outcome of this special election,” said the memo. “What people are focused on are jobs, jobs, and more jobs.”

NOM offered a different take in a memo it sent, saying, “Another reason why David Weprin is hurting today is because of his vote earlier this year to legalize same-sex marriage. Ethnic and racial minorities are breaking with Dems on this issue and now it may cost them a usually safe seat in Queens.”

In the end, the Democrat lost, but the upset turned on the economy and voter dissatisfaction with national politics, not marriage equality. Still, the battle to control the marriage narrative continues, especially among opponents with a record of more losses than wins.

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