The Gay-Marriage Opponents Are Safe, For Now

They may be on the wrong side of history, but—at least for the near future—most of the New York state senators who voted down gay marriage on Wednesday will not pay a political price.

The measure lost by a surprisingly lopsided 38-24 count, with eight Democrats joining all 30 of the chamber’s Republicans in opposition. In defeat, Senator Tom Duane, the openly gay author of the marriage legislation, cried betrayal and derided those who voted no for a lack of “backbone.” Those taunts, though, are the only penalty that just about all of them will face.

When it comes to gay marriage, the electorate can be broken into three basic groups: a relatively small core of committed opponents; a relatively small core of committed supporters; and a vast swath of conflicted voters who like to think of themselves as “tolerant,” but who are instinctively uneasy with sudden, sweeping change.

To face blowback, then, a senator must (a) represent a district in which absolutist sentiment predominates, either among primary voters or general election voters; and (b) vote against that absolutist sentiment.

This automatically excludes every Senate Republican. By voting no, they all shielded themselves from primary challenges (at least on this issue)—no small concern, particularly in rural upstate districts, where religious conservatives can play a key role in G.O.P. primaries. We saw this on a larger scale last month, when Dede Scozzafava’s gay-marriage support helped spur an insurrection that cost her a congressional seat.

Granted, not every G.O.P. senator comes from such a district. Many represent suburban towns where the electorate tends to be moderate on social issues. But these voters fall into that broad, mushy category of “tolerant but uneasy.” They don’t have any particular religious or moral gripe with gay people, but they aren’t preoccupied with social issues—and they are easily persuaded by suggestions that full marriage equality is a step too far.

Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) from these districts need only convince their constituents that they, too, are “tolerant.” At this point in history, that leaves plenty of room for opposition to gay marriage. Arguments like “I’m all for civil unions, but marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman” or “We have more important issues to deal with right now—like the economy” will satisfy these voters.

To be sure, this also leaves room for some Republican senators to support gay marriage, since voters in these districts also won’t punish a gay marriage supporter (provided he or she doesn’t seem too strident or inflexible on the issue—suburban moderates don’t like wing nuts). And heading into Wednesday, it appeared that at least a handful of suburban Republicans were ready to vote yes. Politically, they would have been fine doing so. But they’ll also be fine now, after voting no.

Democrats, by and large, also won’t pay a price. None of the 24 who voted yes will face serious primary challenges as a result. They almost all hail from districts where a no vote would have put them in jeopardy of a primary challenge—or where wishy-washy general-election voters (as noted above) won’t be particularly offended by a yes vote.

Most of the eight who voted no will also be fine, although a few could face some indirect fallout.

On the safe end, for example, is Bill Stachowski from the Buffalo area, who staked out a cautious, “tolerant-but-uneasy” position that matches his constituency. “He has no problem with same-sex civil unions,” Stachowski’s spokesman explained a while back, “but does not want to get into the marriage-classification area.” 

Similarly, Joseph Addabbo, who represents a culturally conservative corner of Queens, made a politically smart call in voting no. There are plenty of Democrats in his district, but they aren’t Daily Kos types.

Where things could get interesting, though, is with Hiram Monserrate and George Onorato.

Monserrate is already in grave danger thanks to his conviction on a misdemeanor assault charge that stemmed from accusations that he slashed his girlfriend’s face with a glass. There was also his defection from the Senate’s Democratic caucus this summer, which briefly threw the chamber into Republican hands (sort of).

All of this was enough to cost him official party backing; The Queens Democratic organization is already rallying around Jose Peralta. By itself, Monserrate’s gay marriage vote wouldn’t be enough to cost him his seat in his district; but it will provide his intraparty foes (who are already well armed) with one more weapon to rile up opposition to him in a primary.

Onorato’s district includes its share of cultural conservatives—but not as many as Addabbo’s. At 81, he’s already vulnerable to a primary challenge from a young and ambitious Democrat. His no vote will provide such a Democrat—Mike Gianaris or Eric Gioia, Azi suggests—with a good excuse for a campaign against him.

As disheartening as it was, Wednesday’s vote shouldn’t discourage gay marriage supporters too much. History is moving inexorably in their direction. A generation ago, the “tolerance” that drives most voters on gay issues was defined as opposition to overt discrimination. That definition has now been expanded to include civil union – something that 65 percent of all New Yorkers now support (and something that was nowhere near the agenda a generation ago).

Eventually, reflexive support for civil unions will evolve into reflexive support for full-fledged marriage among the vast, mushy middle. Sixty-one percent of 18-to-34-year-olds in New York now support gay marriage—including 48 percent of those who consider themselves Republicans.

The day will come when a state senator will be risking his or her career in opposing gay marriage. Wednesday was just a reminder that we’re not there yet.