Primary tossups show N.Y.’s GOP is out of touch on gay marriage

NY Daily News | by Bill Hammond |09/18/12

CINDY SCHULTZ/ALBANY TIMES UNION

Party punishes senators for being on the right side of history

Sen. Stephen Saland casts his vote for same sex marriage in the senate on June 24, 2011.

Here’s the most disappointing message from last week’s legislative primaries:

Even in tolerant, socially progressive New York, the Republican Party remains hostile territory for gays and lesbians.

That much was clear from Thursday’s results in three GOP state Senate primaries that became showdowns over last year’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

Three Republican senators who were brave enough to vote “yes” on that historic change — and helped put it over the top — were seeking their party’s support for reelection against stiff opposition from anti-gay-marriage forces.

And only one of the three, Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, emerged as a clear survivor.

The other two races — involving Sens. Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie and Roy McDonald of Troy — were too close to call.

With hundreds of absentee ballots yet to be counted, Saland was about 42 votes ahead, and McDonald about 130 votes behind.

So it was that the state that gave marriage equality its greatest victory to date has dealt a blow to the national cause.

Deep-pocketed gay rights activists came to Albany last year with a key promise: They would have the backs of Republicans who took the leap and voted yes. They followed through by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the three senators’ campaigns — in hopes of showing that GOPers could follow their conscience and keep office at the same time.

Sadly, the right wing of New York’s Republican Party was still strong enough to prove them mistaken.

We’re talking about a relatively small core of activist voters who showed up in a low-turnout election — a classic case of the fringe tail wagging the party dog in a primary.

But the anti-gay-marriage crowd still outnumbered the moderates, and that’s what ultimately matters in a democracy.

Saland and McDonald could still pull out primary wins. They might even manage to keep their seats in November. But their near-death scrapes are bound to have a chilling effect on Republican lawmakers in other states who are thinking of following in their footsteps.

Also damaged is the New York GOP’s proud reputation as a moderate alternative to a national party increasingly dominated by extremists.

This is, or at least was, the party of former Gov. George Pataki, who signed landmark legislation outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is, or was, the party of Rudy Giuliani, who famously roomed with a gay couple during his time as mayor and recently spoke out against gay bashing in another state Senate GOP primary.

Those Republicans succeeded by advancing conservative policies that made sense for New York and made sense to New Yorkers — such as controlling excessive spending and taxation and getting tough on crime. That party and those policies are still very much needed to make New York’s government more efficient and effective.

But a Republican Party that toes the right-wing line on social issues is a party with little future in New York. And that is the pattern of recent primaries.

In the 2010 gubernatorial race, the party rank and file picked Tea Partyer Carl Paladino over more moderate Rick Lazio for governor — leading to a blowout victory for Gov. Cuomo.

They did the same in this year’s U.S. Senate race, nominating anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage candidate Wendy Long, who’s running far behind Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand.

Catering to the extremes and ignoring moderates is the big reason why Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in New York since 2006. And if they keep it up, it’s only a matter of time before they lose their majority control of the state Senate, their last foothold on power in Albany.

Thankfully, gay marriage is settled law in New York — and nothing that Republican primary voters do will change that.

The most they can do is set back the cause in other states — but only temporarily. Public opinion polls show that a solid and growing majority of Americans see no reason why their gay and lesbian friends and family members should not have the same marriage rights as other citizens.

A party that doesn’t get that is on the wrong side of history.

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