Magazine | August 1, 2011, Issue

Gay Old Party?

How New York Republicans caved, and where the marriage campaigns go next

It started out as a spectacular year for proponents of what many now call “traditional marriage.”    

Earlier this spring, gay-marriage bills went down to unexpected defeat in Rhode Island and Maryland, two of the bluest states in the nation, in both of which Democrats or independents controlled the house, the senate, and the governorship. The purply state of Minnesota passed an amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman that will go to a vote of the people in 2012, as did the Indiana legislature (which must pass it again before it goes to the ballot box). 

These early-2011 victories came hard on the heels of several significant victories in the November 2010 elections: Iowa voters refused to reelect three judges who had voted to impose same-sex marriage, a historic first for a state in which voters had never before rejected a sitting judge. Democrats who passed a gay-marriage bill in New Hampshire lost control of both chambers, and John Sununu, former head of the state GOP, frankly acknowledged that the Dems’ vote for gay marriage was part of the reason.

Gay-marriage opponents, including me, were on track for what one activist friend of mine called “our best spring ever.” 

Then we lost New York.

What happened?

In 2011, we simply underestimated the odds that Governor Cuomo would succeed in passing gay marriage, a move that required the cooperation of the Republican party.

In 2009, gay marriage went down to a crashing defeat in the Democrat-controlled state senate. Then, in the 2010 elections, Republicans regained control of the senate by a two-vote margin.

Even the New York Times concedes that polling showed little rationale for Republicans to allow a gay-marriage vote: 

A pollster laid out the results of his research on gay marriage for Senate Republicans in early June.

There was little political rationale for legalizing it, the numbers suggested: statewide support did not extend deeply into the rural, upstate districts that are crucial to the state’s Republican Party. And with unemployment at 9 percent, the issue was far down the list of priorities for voters.

Strategically, what happened in New York is simple: The Republican party decided to help Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo pass one of his highest priorities, gay marriage.

To kill this bill, all the newly empowered GOP majority had to do was what Democrats typically do when they control a chamber: refuse to bring it up for a vote. Instead, majority leader Dean Skelos said he would do whatever the majority of Republicans wanted, and the majority of Republicans apparently agreed to let this bill come up for a vote.

In other words, the four Republicans who actually voted for gay marriage are the tip of a very large iceberg, one that may derail the GOP coalition in New York. Mike Long, a longtime GOP ally as head of the Conservative party, argues that it may take Republicans years to recover.

Long has vowed that no Republican who voted for gay marriage will get the Conservative-party line. (The Conservative party runs the Republican candidate on its line — except when it deems the candidate insufficiently conservative. This practice gives New York conservatives a convenient way to vote a party-line ticket without supporting the state’s moderate and liberal Republicans.) 

The National Organization for Marriage has pledged $2 million to defeat pro-gay-marriage Republicans in the next election cycle. In the wake of the New York legislation, NOM also announced a new coalition website, (which is focused on referring gay marriage to a vote of the people, which in New York can happen only if the legislature permits a referendum), and marches and rallies in several New York cities on Sunday, July 24.

#page#Goal number one will be to make it clear to the Republican defectors that betraying marriage was a very bad idea.

On the other hand, a well-orchestrated campaign by high-level GOP donors and operatives in New York made the case that abandoning marriage as an issue would help build the Republican party in New York. 

Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chairman who recently came out as gay, was blunt about his lobbying strategy in New York: “I didn’t come in there saying, ‘Do this for me,’” Mehlman told the Huffington Post. “I said, ‘Do this for you.’ . . . We were saying, ‘It is the right thing to build the party from a political perspective.’”

Paul Singer, a major conservative donor (he funds the Manhattan Institute and the Weekly Standard, among many other great causes) whose son is gay, also contributed money to lobby for the bill. 

Gay-marriage advocates say that the New York victory has national repercussions: In order to push gay marriage through legislatures, they need Republican help. Thus the capacity of high-level pro-gay-marriage GOP donors to protect Republicans who defect is a high-stakes game for both sides. If these four senators keep their seats, they believe, the fight for gay marriage will be over, the battle all but won — and without court intervention.

Gay-marriage advocates have successfully shut down most public avenues for opposition: in entertainment, media, and the academy, opposition to gay marriage is considered suicidal. Even Fox News avoids the issue, as do most talk-radio-show hosts in the conservative alternative media. Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, has forced King and Spalding, a blue-chip law firm, to drop the House of Representatives as a client in cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Ordinary Americans hear messages in support of marriage as the union of husband and wife in only two ways at this point: at church or synagogue, and in politics. This fact is starting to affect national polling on the subject.

New York is the start of an ambitious plan to use a handful of high-powered and well-connected Republican donors and operatives to get the Republicans out of the opposing-gay-marriage business. Pro-gay-marriage Republicans are counting on massive financial help from a handful of high-profile GOP donors, including Mehlman and Singer, to withstand an electoral backlash. 

Whose political judgment is right? Is abandoning marriage the key to building the GOP in blue states — or anywhere? The elections in 2012 will provide the definitive answer.

Republican voters are already expressing disgust with legislators who campaigned one way and voted another, especially senators Jim Alesi and Mark Grisanti. “He’s not honest,” said Ray Akey, 66, of Alesi, in an interview with the New York Times. Akey also said he would not vote for Alesi, who represents a district near Rochester, again. 

But it is Grisanti, from Buffalo, who has so far generated the most visible voter anger, in part because he had repeatedly and publicly proclaimed he was “inalterably” opposed to same-sex marriage before voting for it. 

Adam Kaiser, 27, is a Republican in Grisanti’s district who favors gay marriage, but he told the New York Times he could not stomach voting for Grisanti again: “All politicians are liars, but you got to do a better job of pretending like you’re telling the truth. I think it’s a ticket out of office for him.”

Conservative-party official Kevin Backus wrote on the Grand Island Conservative party blog that

as [Grisanti] was seeking my support for his election, I asked the candidate several questions. At the top of that list was his position on same-sex marriage. . . . Mr. Grisanti clearly stated that, while he would vote for civil unions, I could be sure he would never vote for “anything that had the word ‘marriage’ in it.” Mr. Grisanti committed himself, in the strongest terms possible, to people desiring a senator who would defend traditional marriage.

What’s next for the marriage issue, after New York?

#page#At the state level, New Hampshire will vote in January of 2012 on a bill to repeal same-sex marriage. North Carolina’s legislature is considering an amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman, and state house speaker Thom Tillis told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he expects it to pass; if it does, it will be on the ballot in 2012. Iowa Republicans are two votes shy of taking control of the state senate and passing a marriage bill there. Meanwhile, gay-marriage advocates say they may try to repeal a state marriage amendment in Oregon in 2012 and pass gay-marriage bills in Maine and Maryland. Calls to repeal Proposition 8 in California are meeting resistance from the major gay-rights donors, who may want to see how the Oregon vote turns out first.

The issue is heating up nationally as well. By a bipartisan majority of 248 to 175, the House passed the Foxx Amendment, which affirmed that the Defense of Marriage Act applies to military installations. The amendment came in response to a memo the Navy had circulated stating that military chapels could be used for same-sex weddings in states that allow the practice — a policy the Navy temporarily rescinded after a public furor, and has said is still under review. Six Republicans defected, including Judy Biggert (Ill.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), while 19 Democrats joined the pro-DOMA majority. 

In Iowa, a group headed by former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats laid down the gauntlet on marriage, asking presidential candidates to sign a rather long pledge that bound them not only to support a federal marriage amendment, but also to commit to fidelity to their spouse, to oppose sharia law and quickie divorce, and to fight for “humane protection” for women and children who are victims of human trafficking, pornography, and the sex industry. Michele Bachmann garnered (distorted) headlines by being the first out of the box to sign. (Here’s the headline from ABC News: “Bachmann Signs Pledge for Ban on Porn and Same-Sex Marriage.”)

Meanwhile, the great mystery is why President Obama cannot seem to come all the way out for gay marriage, despite the dramatic new support for overturning DOMA, and for establishing sexual orientation as a protected class by judicial fiat, emanating from his Justice Department. A partial answer may lie in several recent Public Policy Polling surveys in battleground states, which have shown that voters remain firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. PPP’s July 6 poll, for example, asked Florida voters, “Do you think same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal?” Illegal, they said, 53 percent to 37 percent (with 10 percent undecided). 

In 2012, both Republicans and Democrats will test their perceptions of the marriage issue against hard political realities. Will marriage become a second life issue for the GOP, surviving the efforts of highly paid political consultants to drive it out of the party’s issue mix? Will Democrats discover that gay marriage is not as popular with voters as with the New York Times?

For social conservatives who care about marriage, especially in New York, 2012 will be either the year we prove we are irrelevant, or the year we prove decisively that we cannot be ignored. 

I’m betting on the latter.

– Maggie Gallagher is chairman and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage.

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