Gay marriage looms larger in 2012 White House race after NY law

Gay marriage looms as a significant issue in the 2012 campaign, and conservatives hope it will have a similar impact to 2004 when it helped George W. Bush win reelection.

New York’s passage of a law late Friday legalizing gay marriage has energized the debate in Washington and will pressure President Obama to address it further.

The issue could rise to political significance early next year when Republican leaders in New Hampshire plan to vote on a repeal of state law allowing same-sex marriage. 

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The repeal vote could happen around the time of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. 

Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said action of New York’s legislature “raises the issue another notch in the political season, especially in the presidential campaign season.” 

Donovan, who specializes in social and family issues, predicted it would intensify scrutiny on Obama.

Gay-rights advocates are disgruntled with the president’s cautious approach. He was heckled lightly at a fundraiser in Manhattan Thursday with donors from the gay community. 

Obama told the audience he believes that “gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country” but stopped short of endorsing gay marriage.

Several people in the crowd interrupted his remarks by shouting “marriage.”

While Obama is under strong pressure from the gay-rights community to endorse same-sex marriage it could hurt him in swing states that prohibit it. Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia have state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and expected to be closely contest in 2012.

White House officials have said Obama’s view is “evolving.”

Conservative activists say it could become as big an issue in 2012 as it was in the 2004 presidential election, when Republicans pushed ballot-initiatives banning gay marriage in several states. That effort was seen as helpful to Bush’s reelection because it mobilized socially conservative voters. 

Minnesota, a potential battleground state, has a ballot referendum on gay marriage slated for next year.

“This will probably make this an issue at the same level of 2004,”  Donovan said of New York’s law and the repeal vote in New Hampshire.

Several GOP presidential hopefuls, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minn.), have endorsed a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage.

“So far, it’s still a winning electoral issue for people who are pro-marriage,” said a Washington-based Republican strategist.

Conservatives say Obama would put his reelection at risk by reversing himself and supporting same-sex marriage.

“If he decides to support same sex marriage, he’s risking a huge portion of electorate,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said of Obama. “African Americans and Catholic Democrats oppose it. It would be a much bigger risk than continuing the position he has now.”

The passage of the New York law has emboldened activists to press members of Congress to jump into the debate.

Conservatives in Washington say GOP leaders in Congress have run out of excuses for not pressing ahead anti-gay marriage legislation.

Activists say there is support among rank-and-file Republicans to take up a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage or other legislation but GOP leaders have so far resisted.

Meanwhile, gay-rights activists say New York’s landmark law will bolster efforts to repeal the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1996.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, called the new New York law “a watershed moment for marriage equality across the country.”

“For the first time such a law has passed through a Republican-controlled chamber. This bill crossed party divides,” he said, noting Republicans are the majority in the New York state Senate.

Social issues have taken a backseat in the U.S. Senate and House this year as leaders have focused on the budget debate and the military conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan.

Social conservatives hope New York will spur a response.

“One would hope that in Washington they’re going to finally start taking it seriously,” said Tom McClusky, senior vice president at FRC Action, the legislative action arm of the Family Research Council.

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“They’re running out of excuses to do nothing,” McClusky said of GOP congressional leaders. “A lot of members want to do something but there’s a holdup at the leadership level.”

Cole-Schwartz of Human Rights Campaign hopes it will give new momentum to an effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. 

“There are DOMA repeal bills in both chambers. We are doing the work of educating members and building cosponsors and would really like to see some movement in the Senate,” he said.

Cole-Schwartz noted the passage of the New York law doubled the number of people living in states that allow gay marriage.

“On the federal level, all of those people will be denied equal rights because of DOMA,” he said.