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Conservatives target Republicans who back gay marriage: 'You could lose your career'

David Handschuh / Pool / Getty Images file

Couple Ray Durand (L) and his partner Dale Shields kiss while having their picture taken after their wedding ceremony at the Manhattan City Clerk's office on the first day that New York State's Marriage Equality Act went into effect on July 24, 2011 in New York City.

One year after New York lawmakers voted to make same-sex marriage legal in the state, opponents of gay marriage are pledging to unseat the Republicans whose support was key to the law's passage, saying they want to send a message to other legislators that there are “consequences” to their votes.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, says it is funneling $2 million into the state to oust three state senators who voted to support the legislation. All three, Sens. Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti, are facing primary challenges. A fourth GOP senator, Jim Alesi, already has said he won’t seek a ninth term due to local opposition over his pro-gay marriage stance.

Alesi, 64, and his three fellow GOP senators joined 29 Democrats on June 24, 2011, to give the bill a 33-29 victory. Though Alesi told msnbc.com he was sad to leave office, he said the vote on gay marriage was "irrevocable" and decried the actions of NOM as "purely revenge" and "blind hatred."

"The focal point of running against good candidates (his three fellow GOP senators) ... is nothing more than a bag of rocks that they’re carrying around and they’ll have to carry them for a long, long time because marriage isn’t going anywhere, it’s here,” he said.

Brian Brown, executive director of NOM, doesn't shy away from the fact his group is hoping to intimidate wavering lawmakers into opposing gay marriage.

“The message is clear, that supporting same-sex marriage is a losing issue, not a winning issue,” Brown told msnbc.com. “You could lose your career over supporting same-sex marriage.”

He also doesn't buy the argument that gay marriage is a settled issue in New York, even though a May 2012 poll by Quinnipac University found the state's voters support same-sex marriage 54 to 37 percent.

"If we don’t get a vote this year, we’re going to work to get one next year. We’re not going away," Brown said. "I think it’s just wishful thinking to say that once you have same-sex marriage the fight’s over. It’s not."

Toward that end, NOM has spent $400,000 on issue ads, billboards, automated calls and direct mail as well as made direct donations through its New York PAC. It is planning to spend another $1.6 million to try to unseat McDonald, Saland and Grisanti as a result of their gay marriage votes.

Both McDonald and Saland face opponents strongly opposed to gay marriage, and their contests could turn on the issue. Grisanti also has faced criticism for his marriage vote, but his Republican opponent, Kevin Stocker, won't say where he stands on the issue. Instead, Stocker argues the issue should have been put before voters, not enacted by the legislature, according to capitoltonight.com's "State of Politics" blog.

“NOM is trying to use the choke point of a Republican primary to punish people who voted … the other way,” said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant in New York who supports gay marriage but did not work on the issue for either side. “NOM’s strategy is to try to take advantage of the more conservative factor …  that exists in Republican primaries and use that as an example to say to legislators in other states, ‘Don’t you dare vote for this because you’ll lose.'"

But Gyory, an adjunct professor of political science at Albany-SUNY, believes that if the New York lawmakers can escape their primaries, their support for gay marriage could work to their advantage.

Mike Groll / AP

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, hands pens to legislators after signing into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Friday, June 24, 2011. Behind Cuomo, from left, are Assemblyman Matthew Titone, Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, Sen. Thomas Duane and Sen. Jim Alesi.

"If you put it up to a general election test in these areas it would probably play to the benefit of these legislators rather than to their political detriment.”

Alesi said NOM and the money it is pouring into the state was not a factor in his decision not to seek re-election. He said they were “nowhere on the radar” in Rochester except for a billboard they put up in a remote part of his district. He also denied that a controversial local lawsuit over a personal injury factored into his decision. What it came down to, Alesi said, is that he had a strong Republican challenger, and had determined a bloody primary wouldn’t be worth ultimately losing a Republican-held seat to a Democrat.

“As much as I could easily have won in the general election, I thought it would be very difficult to get through a primary … where I’d have to challenge my own party,” Alesi said.

He said some of his supporters encouraged him to leave the Republican Party so his marriage vote wouldn't be such a factor, but he didn't want to do it.

Hans Pennink / AP file

Sen. Roy J. McDonald, R- Stillwater, left, talks with his Chief of Staff Patrick E. Poleto during a session of the New York State Senate at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, June 14, 2011.

“I thought also that it was very important if I were going to run for re-election that I would do it as a Republican because I was a Republican when I voted for marriage equality, and at the time, I said that I think it’s important for other legislatures and other states to know that Republicans can vote for things like marriage equality," he said, noting that he had said from early on, "Republicans can vote for this and go on with their political lives.”

To that end, The New York Times reported that billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer will give $1 million to begin a “super PAC” called American Unity PAC with several other Republicans. It will provide support to Republican candidates who favor same-sex marriage. Singer helped amass some $250,000 for each of the Republican New York state senators after NOM announced its efforts.

The New York primaries are in June and in September, and it remains to be seen how the three lawmakers will fare. But Alesi said he is fine with how everything turned out after his marriage vote, even though it is largely responsible for the end of his senate career

"I took the greatest vote I could have taken ... I firmly and truly believe in equality," he said, remembering that at the time of the vote he told himself, "If this is what the price is, it’s fine with me, because I can’t imagine having the opportunity to do anything this historic and this personally fulfilling again ever in my career ... I am leaving very peacefully."