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.