GOP Conservatives Deal Gay Rights a Setback in New York Primary

In this March 2, 2011, photo, Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, speaks in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Gris
In this March 2, 2011, photo, Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, speaks in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Grisanti and his wife said Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 they were attacked and beaten at a Niagara Falls casino the night before after the lawmaker tried to break up an argument between two businessmen, one of whom accused him of hating the Indian tribe that runs the casino. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The primary elections for state legislature turned into a referendum, of sorts, on same-sex marriage. I'm sorry to say that gay rights had a bad day.

New York got its historic gay marriage law last year after four Republican state senators switched positions and joined the Senate Democrats in supporting the bill. One of them decided not to run for re-election.

The other three faced primaries in which their opponents harped on that single vote. And after last Thursday's balloting, two -- Steve Saland from Dutchess County and Roy McDonald from the Albany area -- were teetering on the brink of defeat.

Sen. James Alesi, the Rochester Republican who decided to retire, said his vote for the same-sex marriage legislation would have made it extremely difficult for him to win the GOP primary. (The fourth GOP senator, Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, breezed to victory despite being the target of a pornographic mailer that attacked his vote for same-sex marriage.)

The primary results said very little about the feeling of New Yorkers, or even Republican New Yorkers. The election was held on a Thursday in the middle of September. Only state legislators and the occasion judge were on the ballot. We've already had our primaries for president and Congress, and if you were under the impression the voting season was over until November, you had good cause.

If the legislature, which set the date, had want to discourage voting any more, they'd have had to rule that ballots could only be cast after sunset in a hollow oak tree in the middle of the nearest cemetery.

It was the perfect set-up for a small segment of voters with intense feelings to dominate the field. And the social conservatives did. "Look what could happen to you if you jump on the bandwagon and try to vote and legislate to destroy the meaning of what marriage is," crowed Michael Long, the head of the Conservative Party in New York.

The results won't have any impact on same-sex marriage in New York. It's already the law, protected by the heavily Democratic Assembly, which would certainly block any attempt at change. And this is not a state where people who get riled up can take their grievances to referendum. (They can in places like Washington and Maryland, and the big challenge for gay rights will be there in November. It's highly unlikely that any of the people voting will care what happened to a state senator from Poughkeepsie.)

But there will be a huge impact on the way the legislature operates next year. The far right has sent the same message in New York that they've been sending Republican politicians around the country -- cross us and we'll kill you in a primary.

The Republicans in the Senate will be terrified of antagonizing the party's right wing. Whatever smidgeon of independence they started showing over the last two years, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo found them to be useful allies on any number of issues, is now over.

There's nobody as easy to terrify as New York state legislators. Their jobs are supposed to be part-time -- a sideline from their real life, almost a kind of hobby. But in reality, for most of them, the legislature is their life. They go there and stay until they either wither away or get promoted to a more lucrative state job. They use their budgetary powers to get jobs for their friends and family. The connections grease the profits of their law firm or real estate office.

They're almost all in safe seats, thanks to rigorous gerrymandering. They aren't used to serious challengers. The idea they could have one is terrifying. Sen. Saland has been in office for 32 years, and this is his first encounter with the phenomenon known as a primary election.

The message from last week was that if it happened to him, it could happen to anybody. The best way to stay in office is to keep your head down. Never do anything interesting.

Letting the right wing run the Republican Party isn't a recipe for long-term success. Just take a look at Connecticut, which used to send moderate Republicans to the U.S. House and Senate, and win important elections for the state house, with a fair amount of regularity. Then the GOP was taken over by the right wing and presto, Republicans almost vanished except for the occasional self-funded multi-millionaire.

If Sen. Saland or Sen. McDonald is toppled, it will bring new hope to the Democrats, particularly in McDonald's district. It could be the key to a Democratic takeover again. (New York is so blue that no amount of careful drawing of the district boundaries can make the Republicans more than a just-barely majority.)

But no matter who runs the Senate, it'll be narrow and you do not want the entire GOP huddled in their seats, watching for signs of displeasure from the conservative wing.

Yet it looks like that's what we're going to get.