As midterms near, gay rights activists press same-sex marriage issue

Gay rights activists see a chance to get the gay marriage issue back into the midterm campaign conversation thanks to an upcoming court ruling in California.

Closing arguments in the trial challenging the legality of Proposition 8, the referendum banning gay marriage in the state, wrapped up this past Wednesday.

ADVERTISEMENT
No matter which way the ruling comes down, the case is headed for appeal. That would send it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal and, ultimately, some have predicted, to the Supreme Court.

Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, said his organization fully intends to make it a campaign issue this year, and said he is confident it will work, at least in California's statewide races. The group is fully engaged in both the race for governor and attorney general. "I think the issue of marriage equality is clearly going to drive turnout here in California," Kors said.  

But outside of the state, said Republican political consultant Philip Stutts, good luck getting candidates for federal office to focus on the issue at all.

"Do I see this being used as an issue anywhere else? Even in the most conservative areas of the country? I really don't," Stutts said.

And the reason why: the economy.

"These elections are going to be decided on economic issues, not social issues," said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin. "Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there has not been a single survey that I've done, from California to Maine, where economic issues didn't top the list of voter concerns."

And many Republicans think spending, deficits and the economy are the way to GOP gains in 2010 and the party doesn't need any distractions.

"We've seen the issue come up in campaigns a lot less in the last year or two," said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. "It's receding as a political hot potato and that's potentially dangerous for progressives."

Dison urged Democrats not to let candidates get away with glossing over their social issue positions even in an election year where both parties are focused almost entirely on the economy.

"To not get candidates on the record about this issue during the campaign is dangerous," he said. "Then, once they get in office and the issue comes before them, you will find them voting in a socially conservative way."

One possibility from a Democratic perspective -- the injection of gay marriage as an issue in a contested House or Senate race could motivate disaffected progressives and potentially increase Democratic turnout. 

"That's the argument Republicans made in 2006 when we were praying that we wouldn't lose the majority," said Stutts, who noted that it didn't work then and it won't work for Democrats in 2010. 

About a week before the 2006 midterms, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the state had to extend to same-sex couples all of the rights afforded to married couples. Some Republicans were hopeful the ruling would serve as a motivator for conservative voters to flock to the polls, particularly in states with gay marriage referendums on the ballot. On Election Day, all but one of the eight gay marriage bans on the ballot in states across the country passed. (Arizona was the only state that year to reject a gay marriage ban.) But Republican candidates in those states didn't fare any better than in places where gay marriage wasn't on the ballot.

Even if federal campaigns are steering clear of the issue this year, other legal and political battles over gay marriage are ongoing across the country. The state of Massachusetts is suing the federal government, arguing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) infringes on the state's right to decide who is eligible for marriage licenses. In New York, gay rights activists are heavily funding efforts to oust state senators who voted against legalizing gay marriage last December.

One campaign arena where the issue does loom large in 2010, according to Freedom to Marry's communication director Sean Eldridge -- attorney general races across the country. In the wake of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's lawsuit over DOMA, activists are injecting the issue into other AG campaigns, looking for candidates who will pledge to pursue similar lawsuits. In New York state's Democratic primary for attorney general, the leading candidates have already pledged to challenge the federal government on DOMA if elected. 

"We want to see this issue come up in every AG race across the country," Eldridge said. "What's happening in California is just one of many instances this year where the marriage equality issue is going to be out there. I think politicians and voters are paying attention."