Primary elections, especially for a single state Senate seat, aren’t usually worthy of statewide attention. But the Republican race for New York’s 43rd Senate district, along the east bank of the Hudson north to Saratoga Springs and as far south as Columbia County, is a little bit more meaningful than we’re used to.
This race — which Saratoga County Clerk Kathy Marchione won by a slim margin over incumbent Sen. Roy McDonald — is more than just about who the Republicans are putting up this year. It’s about what kind of Albany, and what kind of Republican Party we’re going to have in the remainder of Gov. Cuomo’s (presumably) first term.
It is extremely rare for an incumbent to be primaried out. The “wave” of upsets in the past three years in which sitting Republicans have been unseated by Tea Party challengers is still the exception. Incumbents hold institutional advantages; these include party funding, guaranteed news coverage and the gravitas that comes with having been elected before. Though they may have a record that comes with some baggage, for most voters, the known is evidently preferable to the unknown.
These “institutional” factors apply for the general election as well — except that in the general, both candidates have party machine backing, giving them the money, coverage and gravitas primary challengers lack. However, since the state legislators draw up their districts themselves, many times saturating them with party loyalists, the game is already set up so that most of them get re-elected. (Democracy at work!)
Thus, when a primary election becomes contested, it’s huge news. When money doesn’t make the difference, as it usually does, that’s even bigger news. And despite Roy McDonald’s huge financial advantage, he has now failed to win renomination to his seat in the state Senate. The senator spent nearly $650,000 on his race for re-nomination, much of it won through his support of New York’s marriage equality bill last summer. For that enormous sum of money to be trumped by something else has to make centrist, compromise-minded Republicans very uneasy.
Though incumbents are still rarely picked off in the primary, when it does happen, it gets widespread media attention — as rare events often do. Also rare: A marriage-equality-supporting Republican. With McDonald’s loss, these kinds of Republicans are now even rarer.
Conservatism doesn’t have to be about keeping gays from marrying the people they love. In fact, a love of individual liberty isn’t really compatible with opposition to marriage equality, ideological gymnastics aside. That’s why it was refreshing to see McDonald “come out of the closet” so to speak, on the issue.
This position became the focal point of his race, is why boatloads of money poured in from all directions, and is why social conservatives have had him in their sights ever since.
McDonald, of course, had to have known that his vote would be a problem for a party that nominated Carl Paladino for governor just months before the marriage bill passed, which is why, if not for the fund-raising bounty McDonald received immediately afterwards, he’d never have crossed the aisle. That’s not to say that he was being disingenuous. But what appeared to make the difference for him weren’t his personal feelings. It was the financial guarantee that he wouldn’t be outspent by anti-marriage-equality forces, giving him, it appeared then, the freedom to speak his mind and vote his conscience.
And now he’s been primaried out.
The positives: In an election cycle where down-ticket Republicans are already being hurt by the man at the top of the ballot, and in a state leaning more and more toward support of marriage equality, the possibility exists that Democrats might retake this seat.
This is the seat, mind you, of longtime Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, a conservative fixture in New York politics for decades. It won’t bode well for the long-term health of the Republican Party if they decide to run Carl Paladinos for the Legislature instead of George Patakis. Combined with a national defeat, it could help send a message the party needs to come back to the table and deal like it used to.
The other possibility, of course, is that the “severe” conservative will win. That would be further evidence that the high-intensity, low-turnout primaries have more influence than the general election — indeed, unfair influence. In districts gerrymandered so party affiliation is weighted heavily in one direction or the other, it’s interest groups and the most passionate (read: ideological)
voters that take the wheel, leaving the rest of us in the dust. (This happens on a national level, too.)
In the rare case where moderates are elected to a party consistently sliding rightward, the primary process guarantees a quick course correction, especially in today’s climate.
Impact on culture
And so the most depressing aspect of all this is not the fate of one of many state Senate seats — it’s the impact on political culture. Beyond just the district and the balance of power in the Senate, McDonald’s defeat will be a warning for any Republicans who want to try working with Democrats.
Money is usually like mother’s milk in politics, but if any Republicans want to try to work with Gov. Cuomo on a contentious issue, the message that this primary is sending is that money or bipartisanship simply doesn’t matter: The right wing will destroy you.
If the other side has the organization to get the most passionate voters to the polls in a low-turnout election, money appears not to matter. As much as I don’t want the moneyed interests to be in control of our government, it’s worse when elected officials are forced to kowtow to the electorate’s fringe.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.