By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com June 27 2012 8:12 PM ET
Wendy Long, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and ardent marriage equality opponent, won the Republican primary in New York Tuesday and will challenge U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a staunch LGBT ally, in the general election this November.
The Manhattan attorney captured a surprise victory in a three-person race, taking 51% of the vote and beating her closest rival, Congressman Bob Turner of Queens, by 15 points, according to the Associated Press. Turner scored his own upset last year in the special election to succeed Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned after a sexting scandal, but his downstate base could not overcome the upstate support that propelled Long. A conservative judicial activist who led opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, she described herself as the “unknown, underfunded underdog” in her victory speech.
Low turnout in the primary drew more conservative voters to the advantage of Long, who promoted her opposition to marriage equality during the campaign. In a recent YNN/NY1 debate, she said that she would refuse to attend a same-sex wedding on principle, but acknowledged that as a federal lawmaker, there would be nothing she could do to change the New York law, and that she believed states should decide the issue for themselves.
Long has been endorsed by marriage equality opponents including the National Organization for Marriage, the Conservative Party of New York State, and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a group representing evangelical Protestants which has filed a lawsuit challenging the law that passed the legislature last year. The organization praised her as a “commonsense conservative” in a statement after her win. She also has the backing of Carl Paladino, the Tea Party favorite whose 2010 gubernatorial bid took a downturn after he told a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn that he did not want children “brain washed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option.”
Those endorsements could become a liability in the general election, where Long will face a less conservative electorate, and where a Quinnipiac University poll last month showed that New Yorkers support marriage equality by 54% to 37%. Republicans, who have not won a statewide race since 2002, have struggled to balance the right-leaning demands of primaries with the increasingly blue voter profile in the state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one in registration.
“The trick for any Republican in New York State is to get through the primary without throwing yourself so far to the right that you have no hope of being a moderate,” said Republican consultant Tom Doherty. “If there’s a perception that you’re sort of the Conservative Party candidate, which Wendy clearly is in New York, I don’t think that helps.”
The Senate race represents the first statewide contest since the marriage equality law passed last year, but the debate is expected to focus on jobs and the economy, unless polls show significant tightening. A Siena College poll earlier this month found Gillibrand leading Long by 54% to 22%, figures that will likely shift as Republican support consolidates around the nominee. The dynamic of two working mothers could also reduce an anticipated gender advantage for Gillibrand in an election year marked by extensive discussion of women’s issues.
Should marriage equality enter the conservation, majority support for the issue among voters would appear to favor Gillibrand, who has established herself as a prominent Democratic voice for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act since being appointed to succeed Hillary Clinton in 2009. The following year, she won by 28 points a special election to carry out the remainder of the six-year term, and is now seeking her own full term.
Analysts expressed different views on the role that marriage equality might play in the general election campaign. Long referred to Gillibrand, the state’s junior senator, as “even more liberal than Barack Obama” in her victory speech, but she did not specifically raise the issue. The president announced his support for marriage equality last month, as Gillibrand predicted he would before the 2012 election.
“Given her ties to the Conservative Party, I think that she will bring this issue and reproductive rights and as many social issues as possible up for debate, and I expect that Kirsten Gillibrand will be happy to debate them because they are, in New York at least, winning issues,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College.
Doherty disagreed, and said that running on opposition to marriage equality would only hurt Long. Republican state senators took the issue off the table by passing the bill in 2011 to spare the party’s candidates that debate, he said. The recent Quinnipiac poll found that 52% of independents support the right of same-sex couples to marry.
“Where it does become an issue, by her being against it, it just solidifies her on the right where you need to pick up votes in the center in this type of race,” he said. “Once you’re going further right, independents look at you and go, ‘That’s just unacceptable for me.’”
The Gillibrand campaign released a statement Tuesday that touted her work to overcome “partisan gridlock” on issues including “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. A spokesman said that the senator had called Long to congratulate her.
However, the New York State Democratic Committee wasted no time in attacking Long’s “far right, extreme ideological views” in a post-primary statement that listed examples including the YNN/NY1 debate, her affiliation with a student newspaper at Dartmouth, also Gillibrand's alma mater, that mocked gay people, Jews, and African-Americans, and a 2010 radio interview with Laura Ingraham in which she said that same-sex marriage would lead to people marrying their parents or pets.
Long, who has never held elected office, can be expected to receive some influx of cash following her primary victory, but overall she lacks money, with around $80,000 more in campaign debt than cash on hand, compared to a war chest of $9 million amassed so far by Gillibrand. Unless her race catches fire, Republican fund-raisers are apt to remain fixated on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and the state senate, the only remaining GOP stronghold in the senate.
“The focus will be on keeping the Republican-led senate,” said Doherty. “She is not a natural place where they can win.”
Still, with just over four months until the general election, the race can take any number of unexpected turns. Last year, the special election in the state's 9th Congressional District appeared sleepy until outside voices turned it into a referendum on the economy and American policy toward Israel. Although there was no exit polling, marriage equality opponents claimed that the Democratic candidate lost because of his vote for the measure in the state legislature.
“It’s a very convenient explanation for people who don’t have an explanation, and it’s a very convenient explanation for people who just want to maintain the view that the issue is more controversial than it really is,” said Sherrill.