Last week, Democratic activist Sean Eldridge officially announced his run in New York’s 19th District against GOP Rep. Chris Gibson.
But there was one glaring issue left out of his nearly-three-minute introductory Web video: marriage equality.
The omission was noteworthy because Eldridge, who is gay and married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, has dedicated almost all of his adult life to fighting for marriage equality. Divorcing himself from the polarizing issue in a competitive congressional race might be difficult.
There are no accidents in professional campaign ads, and that is precisely what Eldridge’s Web video was. It had all the right buzzwords, such as “independent voice,” “working families,” break the “gridlock,” supporting Planned Parenthood and on and on. So the omission of marriage equality is not by chance.
Since he graduated from Brown University in 2009, Eldridge has been on staff at or an adviser to Freedom to Marry. In November 2011, Eldridge started Hudson River Ventures to support local businesses.
“Sean joined Freedom to Marry in 2010, serving initially as Communications Director and then as Political Director, a role in which he was instrumental in winning the freedom to marry in New York,” according to Eldridge’s bio on Freedom to Marry’s website, where he is still listed as a senior adviser.
BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner put together a near-comprehensive list of places where Eldridge does and doesn’t mention Freedom to Marry. But the fact remains that Eldridge’s advisers must not have felt that his chief résumé item was worthy of a mention in the intro video.
While Eldridge was successful in getting the law passed in 2011, it was without the support of the vast majority of legislators who represented territory in the 19th congressional District. And that could be a reason his campaign decided not to highlight it.
The four state senators (all Republicans) that overlapped with the 19th District split their votes on the bill. But the electoral fallout all pointed in one direction.
Sens. John Bonacic (42nd District - Ulster, Sullivan, Delaware counties) and James Seward (51st District - Greene, Schoharie, Otsego) voted no on the marriage equality bill. Sens. Stephen Saland (41st District - Columbia, Dutchess) and Roy McDonald (43rd District - Rensselaer) were two of only four Republican senators across the state to vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.
But those "yes" votes drew primary challengers for both men. McDonald was defeated in the GOP primary by Kathleen Marchione. Saland won his primary by 107 votes, but his challenger remained on the Conservative Party line (taking 15,000 votes) in the general election and the incumbent lost to Democrat Terry Gipson by 2,000 votes.
Eight Republican and two Democratic members of the state Assembly cover the vast majority of the 19th C.D. Those legislators voted 8-2 against the bill, but not precisely along party lines.
Assemblymen Joel Miller, a Republican, and Kevin Cahill, a Democrat, voted in favor of the bill while Democrat Bill Magee voted against it. Miller was considered a socially liberal Republican and declined to run for re-election in 2012. The rest of the legislators won re-election except for George Amedore, who lost a bid for the state Senate by 18 votes.
Even though Democrats are very bullish on marriage equality nationwide, voters in New York’s 19th District didn’t punish legislators for opposing it.
There is no question that the 19th District should be one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. Barack Obama carried the district in both 2008 (53 percent) and 2012 (52 percent), virtually guaranteeing a close race. And Eldridge, who had $639,000 in campaign funds on June 30, should be very well funded. Gibson had $431,000 on hand at the same point.
According to Slate’s June Thomas, Eldridge is smart not to emphasize his marriage. But the bigger question is whether the candidate can separate himself from marriage equality since that’s the issue on which he has spent most of his adult life working. If the 27-year-old Eldridge had the same résumé and was not gay, the lack of a mention would be equally glaring.
Democrats bring up Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney’s election to Congress in the neighboring 18th District as evidence that marriage equality is not an issue in upstate New York. But even though Maloney is gay and the two districts performed similarly in recent presidential contests, Maloney’s professional life was not directly tied to the marriage equality issue.
Working in Eldridge’s favor is that it appears that neither party is interested in waging a battle over the issue. As I wrote in my analysis for The Rothenberg Political Report ($), Republicans weren’t (and aren’t) planning on making Eldridge’s sexuality an issue. But it will be a part of the race since virtually every media story on the race mentions his marriage.
The 19th District is rated Tossup/Tilt Republican by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.