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Professors analyze Stefanik’s yes vote on House bill protecting gay marriage

U.S Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga, talks to the media at Peruzzi's Meat Market on Church Street in Canajoharie Feb. 14.

U.S Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga, talks to the media at Peruzzi's Meat Market on Church Street in Canajoharie Feb. 14.

More than 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage, according to Gallup polling conducted in May. More than 90% of Americans think birth control is morally acceptable, according to Gallup. Yet on bills recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga, voted against much of her party to support gay marriage, while she joined a strong majority of her party in a vote against protecting access to contraception.

The bills were introduced by Democrats following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The decision included an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas that seemed to call into question the future of gay marriage and access to contraception.

Initially, Stefanik’s “yea” vote on the Respect for Marriage Act surprised Angela D. Ledford, a College of Saint Rose professor of political theory and professor-in-residence at the New York State Assembly. “But then, the more I thought about it, it started to make sense.”

Regional political science professors say there are likely many motivating factors behind Stefanik’s votes, with Republican leadership’s less-fervent opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act helping to pave the way for Stefanik’s yes vote. Still, Stefanik’s decision to vote against the majority of her fellow Republican House members on the same-sex marriage bill and vote in lockstep with her party against a bill guaranteeing access to contraception says a lot about the GOP’s priorities and offers possible insights into Stefanik’s personal views and political ambitions, professors say.

“It perhaps suggests the role that public opinion plays is just issue dependent for the Republican party,” said Zoe M. Oxley, a professor of political science at Union College.

The Right to Contraception Act would create protections for an individual’s right to access — and a health care provider’s right to provide — contraception and related information. In general, it prohibits measures that single out and impede access to contraception. The bill passed the House 228-195, with eight Republicans voting in support, though it went nowhere in the U.S. Senate. Stefanik voted no on the House bill, saying she is against specific medications that would be available.

“The House Democrats’ bill allows non-FDA approved drugs, which puts women’s health significantly at risk and sends taxpayer funds to far-left abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. I am proudly pro-life and have helped to expand access to over-the-counter FDA approved contraception,” Stefanik said in a statement, which noted that she has cosponsored other bills meant to promote greater access to safe contraception. “I am a cosponsor of legislation to support FDA-approved contraception to protect women’s health.”


Meanwhile, the Respect for Marriage Act would provide legal authority for same-sex and interracial marriages by repealing and replacing federal law provisions that define marriage as between a man and a woman and spouse as a person of the opposite sex, with provisions that recognize any marriage that is valid under state law. The Respect for Marriage Act passed in the House 267-157, with 47 Republicans, including Stefanik, joining Democrats in support.

To triumph over a filibuster, the bill will need 60 U.S. Senators to vote yes, likely meaning at least 10 Senate Republicans would have to vote in favor of the bill. It’s not yet clear if Democrats have the votes in the Senate.

Stefanik defends her support of the Respect for Marriage Act as part of a commitment to state laws being universally recognized.

“Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s vote for H.R. 8404 is consistent with her views on how states should respect concealed carry permits and military family spousal licensing,” said Palmer Brigham, a spokesperson for Stefanik. “Just as she believes concealed carry permits should be recognized from state to state, this bill will ensure if a marriage is recognized in one state, it is recognized in another.”

Reporting by The New York Times found the House Republican leadership did not whip votes ahead of the Respect for Marriage Act coming to the floor. That effectively granted more freedom to members, said Christopher B. Mann, associate professor of political science at Skidmore College.

Ledford said the contrast between the gay rights vote and contraception vote signals diverging paths for major, emotion-packed social issues that have dominated politics for decades. Gay marriage has seen a relatively rapid embrace since the origins of the gay rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, but women’s rights have seemed to languish, particularly after the Dobbs decision, which significantly curtailed access to abortion in America, Ledford said.

“We can’t underestimate the role that a very deep-seeded misogyny plays. You can even see it in [Justice Samuel] Alito’s decision. The language that is used, he thoroughly dismisses this idea that bodily integrity is connected to individual liberty. He just dismisses it, and he doesn’t even really take it up,” Ledford said. “Nobody ever cops to being a misogynist or racist, but to say that those things aren’t deeply embedded in our beliefs and in our mores and practices — I don’t want to underplay that.”

In modern history, conservative, white women have consistently undercut women’s rights — look no further than Phyllis Schlafly’s work against the Equal Rights Amendment, Ledford said.

“Women can be misogynists, too, in ways they don’t recognize,” Ledford said. “Especially white women who have access to power through white men.”


Meanwhile, gay marriage has been a way for conservatives with traditional family values to support gay rights, Ledford said. Conservatives can accept same-sex monogamous relationships, in which the couple raises kids in a single-family home, because that life looks like their own and doesn’t force conservatives to permit other facets of the LGBTQ+ community, Ledford said.

Mann said Stefanik’s vote on the Respect for Marriage bill could also be a nod to political donors, especially those in the GOP who are focused on business-friendly policies. The Skidmore professor said business-minded Republicans often support gay marriage because undoing it could create a logistical headache for companies that provide benefits to employees in different states.

“When gay marriage was recognized nowhere, that was fine with corporate America. When it became uneven, it was a nightmare for corporate America,” Mann said. “The most important thing [for corporate America] is that the rules are the same and they are stable. Revisiting this idea of patchwork, especially when corporate America is already up in arms about being caught in the crossfire of the abortion issue — but over something that is potentially extremely disruptive to their workplaces, their workforce, their health insurance benefits, and that they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t — they don’t want another fight like that.”

Another possibility is that Stefanik, 38, is of a generation that largely supports LGBTQ+ rights, and she wanted to cast a ballot that goes along with her personal opinion and the opinions of most Americans, Mann said. It’s also an issue that isn’t garnering much more than a collective shrug from Republican constituents in upstate New York, he said. “It is also entirely possible that this a vote of personal conscience for Elise Stefanik.” 

Stefanik has been quieter on her yes vote on the Respect for Marriage Act compared to other issues, such as concerns about inflation, support of milk choice in New York’s public schools and her strong opposition to abortion, about which her office regularly sends press releases.

“It could mean that there are certain issues that Stefanik is gearing up to campaign on, and that vote in the Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t fit into the issues she wants to make salient,” Oxley said. “It could be that she is focusing on certain matters for the Republican Party nationally.”

Currently the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Stefanik’s name has been regularly included in conversations about former President Donald Trump’s potential 2024 running mate. So far, Stefanik has largely demurred, though she is not a stranger at Mar-a-Lago and she speaks favorably of the former president. Stefanik also has supported overturning the results of the 2020 election.

Stefanik’s political ambitions are why, no matter what matrix of factors ultimately motivated her yes vote in support of the gay marriage bill, the vote is clearly part of a complicated political calculous, professors said.

As Ledford put it: “I think it won’t be much longer before we see her vying for a much higher office.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter at UpstateWaite.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Saratoga County

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