ALBANY -- Republican primary voters in New York last week punished two incumbents who voted to legalize same-sex marriage, firing a potential warning shot nationwide toward GOP lawmakers who could soon face tough votes in their states.
Two of the four veteran Republican senators in New York who voted for same-sex marriage a year ago await counts of absentee ballots. A third announced his retirement this year in the face of strong opposition to his gay marriage vote. A fourth won his primary Thursday but only after a fierce and nasty campaign that included homophobic images and phrases.
"Gay marriage is a very, very tricky issue, particularly for Republicans," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "The moderate, independent voters who tend to be swing voters in suburban communities tend to be tolerant, and supportive of gay marriage and other social issues."
New York's primary results will get close scrutiny nationwide, Levy said. Republicans in battleground districts have a tricky path to walk: They must gain support from their base of conservatives who are opposed to gay marriage but not turn off the moderate voters who support same-sex marriage and whom the candidate will need in a general election.
New York's June 2011 vote for gay marriage came down to a climactic moment on the Senate floor. For the measure to pass, at least three Republicans had to cross party lines. One, Roy McDonald, had already signaled he would. Stephen Saland arose and said he'd vote yes, the pivotal moment in a long campaign that many likened to the civil rights movement. The last two, James Alesi and Mark Grisanti, followed, and New York made history as the largest state to approve same-sex marriage.
Alesi retired rather than face re-election; Grisanti won his primary.
Same-sex marriage is also legal in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. In Maryland and Washington state, public votes on legalizing gay marriage are scheduled for this fall.
Voters in Maine also will address the issue in November, three years after a referendum overturned a gay marriage law passed by the state Legislature.
"Any Republican legislator faced with this vote is going to think twice," said Robert Bellafiore, a political commentator and former top aide to Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York. "I don't think there is any question this going to have a chilling effect across the country."
The Democratic Party's support of same-sex marriage mirrors most polls and was cemented when President Barack Obama embraced gay marriage this election year.