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Memo To NY Republicans: Don’t Be Scared Of Supporting Marriage Equality

June 13, 2011 9:30 am ET by Carlos Maza

The New York State Legislature is expected to vote on a marriage equality bill before its scheduled adjournment on June 20. As of now, it remains just a few votes short of the 32 needed to pass the State Senate.

Anti-gay groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and the New York Conservative Party have been hard at work attempting to scare away on-the-fence Republican Senators from supporting the bill. They’ve threatened to pull endorsements, pledged to fund anti-gay primary challengers, and vowed to vote any pro-equality Republican out of office in the 2012 election.

These groups are all bark and no bite.

History shows that New York Republicans who support marriage equality have an easy time winning reelection, even in heavily conservative districts. With nearly sixty percent of New Yorkers now in favor of marriage equality, Republicans have a lot more to lose from voting against the bill than they do from providing thousands of loving, committed gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

Debunking The “Dede Effect”

NOM and other conservative groups have made a habit of invoking the specter of former New York State Assembly Member Dede Scozzafava – who twice voted in favor of marriage equality – in order to scare Republicans away from breaking with their party line.

Scozzafava was a moderate Republican who decided to withdraw from a 2009 Special Election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in the face of “collapsing support” from prominent conservatives and the low probability that she could beat Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.  

Anti-equality groups like NOM have been thrilled to use her story as a warning to other Republicans that might be considering voting for same-sex marriage. After the election, NOM president Brian Brown touted his organization’s efforts and laid out what he believed to be a “basic political truth”:

NOM spent more than $100,000 making sure voters in her district understood that Dede had voted twice for gay marriage in the New York state assembly… "The Dede Effect" surely helped persuade some squishy GOP state senators of a basic political truth: It is a bad idea for a Republican to vote for gay marriage.

The New York Conservative Party has made no qualms about rehashing the Scozzafava meme, as is evidenced by one of their recent mailers warning Republicans that they will “pay a price” if they vote for marriage equality:

The so-called “Dede effect,” however, is a baseless myth.

Scozzafava had broken ranks with her party on a number of important ideological issues before withdrawing from the NY-23 election . As Scott Wooledge recently noted on Pam’s House Blend:

  • Scozzafava was strongly pro-choice.
  • Scozzafava received conservative criticism for having been given an award from a Planned Parenthood affiliate in 2008.
  • Scozzafava said she would support the Employee Free Choice Act, a key goal of organized labor at the time.
  • Scozzafava expressed support for the 2009 federal stimulus package.
  • Scozzafava refused to say that she did not support a public option as part of a health care reform package.
  • Conservatives criticized Scozzafava for receiving the endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party in her earlier political campaigns.

Scozzafava’s campaign also had other issues. She received conservative criticism after her husband filed a police report against a reporter for the Weekly Standard. Some in the media also ridiculed Scozzafava for holding a press conference in front of Hoffman’s campaign office, creating an embarrassing photo opportunity.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons that conservatives did not give her a great deal of support. As Slate’s David Weigel wrote:

[H]aving covered the race pretty closely, I don’t see much evidence that Scozzafava was brought down because of her support for gay marriage. If that had been her only affront to conservative voters, I think she would have survived. The Club for Growth -- which Doug Hoffman’s campaign spokesman Rob Ryan credited with putting “gas in the tank” for the campaign -- would not likely have spent money against Scozzafava if she were pro-gay marriage but also anti-stimulus and anti-card check. The Susan B. Anthony List, a huge player in the fight against Scozzafava, did not mention gay marriage in its endorsement of Hoffman.

This conclusion appears to be well-supported, even by NOM’s own poll numbers. Half of the New Yorkers that ended up voting for Hoffman said Scozzafava’s vote on same-sex marriage played no role at all in their voting decision.

The most important thing to remember about the “Dede effect,” though, is that 2009 wasn’t the first time Scozzafava had voted for marriage equality. In 2007, she was one of only four Republicans to vote for a same-sex marriage bill in the state assembly.

According to the “Dede effect,” she should have been swiftly routed during her next election and replaced by a more conservative candidate.

The reality: She ran unopposed in 2008. Neither NOM nor New York’s Conservative Party bothered mounting a primary challenge against her.

Scozzafava's failure to win NY-23’s Special Election in 2009 can probably be attributed to a number of different deciding factors. Her vote for marriage equality wasn’t one of them.

Speaking of the NY-23 election: it was ultimately won by Democrat Bill Owens, who Scozzafava ended up endorsing just days before the first vote was cast.

Pro-Equality Republicans Have An Easy Time In New York

Since 2007, four other Republican assembly members have broken ranks and voted in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry. Every single one of them lost the supposedly invaluable endorsement of the Conservative Party as a result. And every single one has won reelection, typically without even having to face a primary challenger.

Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-114): Duprey initially voted against marriage equality in 2007, but changed her vote when a similar bill came up for a vote in 2009, calling it a “civil rights issue.” Duprey lost the endorsement of the Conservative party as a result.

In 2010, Duprey defeated her Republican primary challenger, David Kimmel -- who went on to secure the Conservative Party nomination. In the general election, Duprey beat both of her opponents by a wide margin, winning approximately 60 percent of the vote.

This May, Duprey wrote an op-ed encouraging her Republican colleagues not to be afraid of voting for marriage equality:

After the vote, some were quick to write my political obituary. They said my constituents would never forgive me for changing my vote. They said the extremists who promised to defeat me would win.

[…]

I did not lose my election because of my stand. Neither has any of the 72 Republican legislators who have voted for the freedom to marry. That is because no election is decided on a single issue. I ran on my entire record, including my vote for marriage for everyone. The vast majority of my North Country constituents respected my decision, whether they agreed with me or not.

Assemblywoman Teresa R. Sayward (R-113): Sayward is one of the few Republican assembly members to have voted twice in favor of marriage equality -- in 2007 and 2009 – despite representing one of the most conservative areas of New York. Like Duprey, Sayward also lost the endorsement of the Conservative Party as a result.

In both 2008 and 2010, Sayward ran entirely unopposed, easily winning reelection. In 2008, she received thousands of dollars in campaign support from the Log Cabin Republicans of New York.

In May, Sayward spoke to National Public Radio about her concerns in breaking with her fellow Republicans:

I thought I would never be elected in the State of New York again. As a Republican, we had always been told that, boy, you don't win in New York State unless you have the Republican line. And that is absolutely not true.

Assemblyman Joel Miller (R-102): Miller was the first Republican assembly member to stand up in support of marriage equality in 2007 and 2009. He describes himself as “an extreme fiscal conservative and social liberal” who has been endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans of New York and the Empire State Pride Agenda.

In 2008, Miller received thousands of dollars in campaign support from the Log Cabin Republicans of New York as well as from prominent gay philanthropist Tim Gill. Miller defeated Democratic opponent Jonathan Smith despite being massively out-fundraised.

In 2010, New York’s Conservative Party yanked its support for Miller, claiming he had refused to “pay attention” to conservative values. Miller responded by saying that the Conservative Party had become “anti-gay community.”

Despite that, Miller ran unopposed in the Republican primary and easily defeated his opponent, Alyssa Kogon, in the 2010 general election.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-2): Although he now identifies as a member of the Independence Party, Thiele was a Republican when he co-sponsored and supported the New York State Assembly’s marriage equality bill in 2009. At the time, Thiele explained that his decision to support marriage equality was about doing what was “right,” regardless of political consequences.

In the 2010 election, Thiele announced that he was joining the state’s Independence Party, specifically citing his vote on marriage equality while explaining he no longer wished to “toe the line” on Republican issues.

He ended up running unopposed in the Independent, Democratic, and Working Families Party primaries and defeated his Republican opponent, Richard Blumenthal in the general eleciton, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

The Reverse-Dede Effect

Growing evidence shows that New York Republicans have a lot to gain by supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

As the New York Times reported in May, a bulk of the money spent to promote marriage equality in New York is coming from wealthy conservative donors, known for “bankrolling right-leaning candidates and causes.” These donors include notable conservative figures like hedge fund manager Paul Singer and prominent financiers Steven Cohen and Clifford Asness.

Daniel Loeb, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative candidates over the past two years, has emphasized that those Republicans who vote in favor of marriage equality will reap widespread support as a result:

If they’re Republican, they will not be abandoned by the party for supporting this. On the contrary, I think they will find that there is a whole new world of people who will support them on an ongoing basis if they support this cause.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state Republican lawmakers, has been putting pressure on potential pro-equality Republicans, even going so far as to suggest that he would withhold funding from those who vote against a marriage bill. According to NY Daily News:

Bloomberg pledged to back senators who "stand up for marriage equality" and warned that those who don't could be left without his often-generous financial support. "I certainly will concentrate and focus more on those that do," said Bloomberg, who has donated big bucks to Senate Republicans in recent years.

Pro-equality Republicans might also find themselves having an easier time in their general elections in 2012. A June 2 Quinnipiac University poll found that nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, including 58 percent of independent voters. Quinnipiac’s results confirm the findings of two other polls conducted in 2011 which also found majority support for marriage equality in New York State.

Those numbers represent a dramatic shift in public opinion. When the New York Senate defeated a marriage equality bill in 2009, a bare majority of voters were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The near ten-point increase in public support in just two years demonstrates the rapid pace at which voters are evolving on the issue of gay and lesbian equality.

More importantly, it highlights the risk that many Republicans face by refusing to move forward on marriage. Politicians who drag their feet on marriage equality now will find themselves in increasingly uncomfortable positions in the future. As Nate Silver recently wrote:

[T]his does put Republicans in a tricky position. Their traditional position on gay marriage is becoming less popular. But to the extent they disengage from the issue, they may lose even more ground. One way to read the trends of the past few years is that we have passed an inflection point wherein it is no longer politically advantageous for candidates to oppose same-sex marriage, which in turn softens opposition to it among the general public, creating a sort of feedback loop and accelerating the trend.

Democrat Kathy Hochul’s recent victory in the NY-26 Special Election helps demonstrate the extent to which same-sex marriage is no longer a reliable wedge issue for Republicans. Hochul ran as an open supporter of marriage equality. Her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, opposed marriage equality and was backed by thousands of dollars in NOM advertising.

When the votes were tallied, however, Hochul was the clear winner, beating Corwin by roughly six points.

This is not to say that Corwin lost because of her opposition to marriage equality. Rather, Corwin’s defeat demonstrates that opposition to same-sex marriage is no longer a surefire political winner for Republicans. In a district that definitely tilted Republican, other issues dominated the election.

More importantly, Hochul’s victory demonstrates the limited impact that out-of-state groups like NOM can have in swaying election results. In fact, NOM’s track record in supporting anti-equality candidates is abysmal. In the 2010 midterm elections -- and during a GOP wave -- NOM lost significantly more races than it won. As the Human Rights Campaign’s “NOM Exposed” project discovered, of the twenty-nine races NOM involved itself in, only 10 went in NOM’s favor:

With the exception of a judicial election they hijacked in Iowa, NOM lost its most expensive and high-profile gambits in California and New Hampshire and all of its races in Maine and the District of Columbia.

In other words, Republicans looking to stay in office would be wise to avoid receiving NOM’s endorsement.

Doing What’s Right

In the past, New York Republicans had good reason to avoid supporting marriage equality. The American public was still evenly divided on the issue and pro-equality Republicans risked provoking the ire – and losing the support – of prominent social conservatives.

Times have changed.

A significant majority of New Yorkers (and Americans in general) are now in favor of marriage equality, and that majority will only grow as times goes on. A number of Republicans have already demonstrated that it is possible to win reelection -- even in conservative districts -- while supporting the rights of loving, committed gay and lesbians couples to marry. Groups like NOM may promise to oust Republicans who don’t toe the line, but they’ve shown themselves to be woefully ineffective at actually following through.

A handful of on-the-fence Senate Republicans are likely to determine the fate of thousands of loving, committed gay and lesbian couples in the state.

Standing up for civil rights in the face of political pressure is no small feat, but as Assemblywoman Janet Duprey wrote:

My re-election demonstrates that even elected officials can have a change of heart and not lose public support.

It is a decision that does not come easily. But I'm hopeful as the marriage debate moves forward, others can learn from my experiences, search their hearts as I did, and do the right thing.


Previously:

Republican NY Representative Urges Colleagues To Support Marriage Equality

Round-Up Of NOM’s New York Marriage Rally: All About “Love,” Except For The Parts About Hate

As Expected, NOM Already Playing The “Race Card” In New York

NOM Spending $1.5 Million To Reboot Its Propaganda Campaign In New York