‘Shove it’: A portrait of a gay-marriage Republican in limbo

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McDonald. (donohuedirect, via flickr)
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BALLSTON SPA—The next paragraph in the gay rights narrative will be written here, in a windowless vault filled with old paper and softly quibbling lawyers, next week.

State Senator Roy McDonald, a Republican who voted for New York's landmark same-sex marriage law last year, needs to make up 106 votes as the lawyers here shift through Saratoga County’s share of roughly 1,000 absentee ballots that will determine whether he has survived a primary challenge from Kathy Marchione, the county’s clerk.

McDonald's primary was one of three localized referendums on New York's 2011 same-sex marriage law, two of which are too close to call.

Four Republicans—McDonald, Jim Alesi of Rochester, Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Steve Saland of Poughkeepsie—broke party ranks, with strong encouragement from Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg and gay-rights advocacy groups, to ensure the bill’s passage.

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Alesi retired and Grisanti won. But McDonald and Saland are now in a sort of post-primary limbo. They're both stalwart incumbents with high name recognition, and their campaigns were fueled by war chests that, on the scale of elections in these upstate communities, should have been big enough to make them invincible.

So what the hell went wrong?

Disclosure reports show McDonald's campaign has so-far spent $647,404.60—a Bloombergian outlay of $96.73 per vote—and that doesn’t account for a final blitz of mail and television advertising, or for spending by allied organizations like Paul Singer’s New York Unity PAC.

The 30-second explanation you'll get from any political scientist for his non-win over challenger Kathy Marchione goes as follows: It’s a Republican primary, voter turnout is notoriously low and normally comes from the most motivated—read: extreme—portion of the party electorate. It’s hard to get people excited about staying the course, and the portion of the population that pushes approval ratings for gay marriage near 60 percent doesn't overlap much, if at all, with the upstate G.O.P. base.

But there are other things, particular to this race. There's what McDonald referred to as his “Irish temper,” and how his unique mixture of stubbornness and classism severely hurt him in this primary, even if it ends up being key to his chances in a general election, if it comes to that.

Flash back to last year. Excitement over same-sex marriage began to crescendo at the Capitol after Alesi declared publicly that he would join 29 of the Senate’s 30 Democrats in supporting the bill. He was the first Republican in office ever to say so openly, and with the force of freshman Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his aides, the marriage bill was closer to reality than it had been since a failed vote in 2009.

McDonald, a blunt talker with a freighted gait who wears grandfatherly suits and is fond of noting his working-class upbringing, was on several short lists of Republicans who might vote yes. He was swarmed by journalists looking for an update.

"You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing," he famously said. "You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing. I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this."

There’s also a softer explanation for McDonald’s vote. It’s a well-known fact to McDonald's constituents that the 64-year-old has two autistic grandchildren, and watching them grow up has given him a new perspective on people, and a “to each his own” sensibility. He has said he regretted his 2009 vote against same-sex marriage—when it was clear the bill would fail and every Republican would go along for the ride.

There was plenty of praise for McDonald in the run-up to the law’s eventual passage later that month. But the reception he got for his wayward thinking among Republican committee people was cooler. McDonald had the backing of party leaders, but didn’t make a full circuit of G.O.P. committees to explain himself.

He did rake in contributions from Michael Bloomberg, Paul Singer, Daniel Loeb and other moderate-to-conservative champions of gay rights. That only made things worse.

“The biggest reason we got behind Kathy wasn’t necessarily how he voted [on same-sex marriage], was why he voted, and raised all that money from downstate interests,” said Ben Potiker, head of the Upstate Conservative Coalition and a resident of Halfmoon, a suburb that constitutes Marchione’s base. “We felt he wasn’t representing the interests of people in my districts.”

McDonald ran a campaign on money and lingering support from the top. He sent mailers and aired advertisements attacking Marchione, a county clerk, as a government hack who was set to collect a salary and pension and loved free health care.

She, in turn, built up a grassroots network working with people like Potiker. Any elective figure will naturally engender resentments over time, and for McDonald they all resurfaced during his hour of need, political people around the district told me. Saratoga County apparatchiks felt snubbed when McDonald refused to sponsor a bill that would increase a sales tax to shore up the operating finances of the county bureaucracy and Rensselaer County insiders were puzzled that McDonald kept a Democratic city councilman on his staff payroll.

The frustrated McDonald re-emerged during the only primary debate, held in Troy two days before the primary. It was a public demonstration of an anemic campaign: Marchione packed the hall with supporters who lapped up her one-liners. When the polls closed, McDonald was more than 100 votes down. Appearing in court Tuesday, his attorney said the recount would be a “mundane and tedious” process.

I couldn't help but have flashbacks to Assemblyman James Tedisco’s 2009 congressional bid against Democratic newcomer Scott Murphy, which he lost after a recount involving many of the same lawyers. (Tedisco’s election night "celebration" was in the same hotel room as McDonald’s, and both candidates had to try to muster the same brave optimism.)

But unlike Tedisco, McDonald can still have a second act even if he loses the G.O.P. line to Marchione. He’s the candidate of the Independence Party, and if he chose to, could campaign through the November general election on its line alone.

The question is who would come with him. A source suggested Senate Republicans would back the party’s nominee, abandoning their colleague for Marchione.

(Publicly, they say such talk is premature. “I’m not going to speculate on it,” Sen. Tom Libous, the head of the Senate Republican Conference Committee, told me Tuesday.)

Labor unions have been a reliable ally to McDonald in previous races—he often noted that he’s the son of a mill worker, and knows that unionized public employees are a crucial constituent bloc. But those unions are now angry that McDonald fell in line with other Republicans (and Andrew Cuomo) voting to reduce pension benefits for new public employers.