After Marriage Equality Vote, Will New York's Gay Voters Give Republicans Another Shot?

06/28/2011 02:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2011

Being gay, Republican, and a citizen of the overwhelmingly liberal state of New York has not always been an easy balancing act. But Friday's passage of the Marriage Equality Act, which picked up the critical and high-profile support of four Republicans in the state Senate, has Log Cabin Republicans optimistic.

Take Darren Darrah, age 45 and co-owner with his husband Mark Bonsey of the Sportsman's Dinette in Willsboro, an upstate Adirondacks town with a population of 1,840. Taxpayers and businessmen with eight employees, the couple was forced to head across the border to Niagara Falls, Ontario, to solemnize their marriage.

Darrah told HuffPost he was "overwhelmed, just simply overwhelmed" by the passage of the gay marriage bill. For a long time, he said, he's been greeted with incomprehension when he tells people that he's gay -- and a Republican.

"Finding gay Republicans, outspoken, is pretty hard," he admitted. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates there are only about 42,000 gay couples in New York state.

Darrah hopes that the support of GOP Senators Jim Alesi, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti for the Marriage Equality Act makes that search a little bit easier. (The only openly gay member of the Senate, Tom Duane, is a Democrat and sponsored the Marriage Equality Act.)

"It shows that there is hope," Darrah said. "Voting the party line just isn't the answer. These elected officials need to be independent thinkers."

Darrah himself has served, as a member of the GOP, on Willsboro's town council. That experience as an elected official, however, didn't mean that his own senator, Betty Little, was any more receptive to his pro-marriage argument. When he called her office, and had "100, 135" friends to call as well, they found that "her office people were not the friendliest."

The explanation they got for Little's staunch opposition towards marriage equality? "Of course it went back to marriage and religion, which was very disappointing," he said. Darrah himself is a Catholic, and he hoped that his small government sentiment might make it a bit easier to get through to Little, but he had no such luck.

Darrah is a member of the state's Log Cabin Republicans. The organization's chairman, Gregory T. Angelo, said he sees the support from the four Republicans as the culmination of "an incredible journey."

Months before the marriage vote, at the behest of Gov. Cuomo, the Log Cabin Republicans teamed up with nonprofit advocacy groups that are technically nonpartisan but usually allied with Democrats, to work under the banner of an umbrella group called New Yorkers United for Marriage.

"There was a really special role that we played, and that was being able to specifically lobby Republican legislators as Republicans," Angelo said.

Of course, grassroots action from members of the Log Cabin Republicans only went so far. As HuffPost's Sam Stein detailed on Monday, financial support from big money Republican hedge-funders and bankers was critical to filling the marriage equality effort's coffers. Those donors, enticed by fundraisers like former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, saw gay marriage through the lens of laissez-faire libertarianism.

State Sen. Jim Alesi, a Republican who voted for the bill, said supporting equal rights was simply the right thing to do -- a decision that transcended the limited government arguments with which he also agreed. "My message is that this is America, it's the freest country in the world," Alesi said.

Log Cabin Republicans Chairman Angelo hopes the success of the marriage equality vote will essentially take the party's troubled past on LGBT issues off the table when voters are considering whether to support Republicans.

"I think that this vote would happen last week in New York state is only going to continue to make people look twice at the Republican Party," he said. "There are a lot of gay men and women out there who are fiscal conservatives."

But not everyone is convinced that the support of four out of the state Senate's 32 Republicans will translate into an upsurge of gay interest in the Republican party.

"The Republican Party has a pretty terrible record to compensate for," said Ken Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College who has studied LGBT voters. "The fact that there are four upstate senators, which is a pretty good proportion of all upstate senators, who are prepared to vote for this may help those senators more than it helps the Republican Party," he said.

Sherrill has studied how gay voters who are born into Republican families switch to the Democratic Party. Most make that choice at the same time as when they are coming out. One vote in one state won't be enough to overcome the national party's anti-gay policies, he believes. The Log Cabin Republicans, in other words, still have their work cut out for them. Exit polls in 2010, a particularly strong year for gay Republicans, appeared to show that only about 31 percent of LGBT voters supported Republicans.

"What they have to be concerned about is stopping young people between the ages of 12 and 21 from, when they realize that they're LGBT, also realizing that they can't be Republican, because that's what's happening now, and I have hard data on that," Sherrill said.

But that doesn't mean he believes the Log Cabin Republicans are fighting a losing game. "First of all they're doing something for that minority of a minority who remain LGBT Republicans, and secondly I think they were incredibly important in moving these individual Republican senators."

Sen. Alesi noted that so far, while "there's a small group of us that supported this, there's a larger group that were completely opposed to it for their own reasons." One concern for many others in his caucus, he believes, was the electoral calculus of supporting gay marriage. The National Organization for Marriage, an anti-marriage equality group, has pledged that it will spend $2 million to reverse Friday's vote. New York state's influential Conservative Party, moreover, has said it will revoke its ballot line for Republican supporters of marriage equality. ("No pun intended, but we are divorced," Alesi said.) It remains to be seen how harshly Republican voters who are religious conservatives punish yes votes in next year's primaries. One Republican senator, Mark Grisanti, is not ruling out running as a Democrat next year.

Alesi said it was "vitally important with this group of influential people, starting with Mayor Bloomberg, that we don't just close up the shop" on the Republican yes votes. Bloomberg was a major supporter, to the tune of $900,000, of the Republicans' successful effort to win back the Senate from Democrats in 2010.

Alesi plans to run again in 2012. He warned that "if I were to lose this election yes, then it would really dampen the message," of Republican support for gay marriage.

To prevent that, Angelo said, "our job right now in the short term is to get the message out there that there were four courageous Republicans who stood up for equal rights." His group will be fundraising and volunteering for the "courageous" four. He hopes the Log Cabin Republicans will be joined by many more who aren't conservatives themselves. The wealthy, libertarian financiers who backed the marriage equality effort seem poised to pitch in with campaign contributions.

In the meantime, Darren Darrah is thinking about holding another marriage ceremony with his husband Mark -- on the American side of the border.