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Anti-Gay-Marriage Initiatives May Not Shape Race

This is the first of a series of occasional columns covering political developments in the states.

Earlier this month, the movement to ban same-sex marriage suffered a serious setback, as Republicans in the Senate failed to muster enough support to hold a vote on a constitutional amendment barring such unions. But outside the Beltway, the issue remains potent.

[IMGCAP(1)] On Aug. 3, primary voters in Missouri backed an anti-gay-marriage initiative, 71 percent to 29 percent. Not only was the measure’s margin of victory unexpectedly wide, but the level of turnout was nearly 40 percent above that of an ordinary primary in Missouri.

Immediately, some analysts began to wonder whether grassroots opposition to same-sex marriage could become a sleeper issue that boosts conservative Republicans in the fall — especially

President Bush, who openly backs the federal constitutional amendment.

But interviews with politicos in states that have anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballot this fall suggest the initiatives will act in more complicated ways.

On one hand, the recent attention paid to gay marriage has made it easier for Republicans to put wavering Democrats on the defensive, especially in contests held in conservative, rural areas.

Even at the top of the ticket, Bush — should he choose to do so — could hammer Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for his split position of opposing gay marriage and a federal amendment to ban it. Kerry’s straddle, in the context of a monthslong Bush effort to label him as a waffler, could hurt the Massachusetts Senator among the rural and blue-collar swing voters he needs in battleground states.

On the other hand, pollsters do not consider opposition to gay marriage a sure-fire way to drive additional voters to the polls. When surveys offer voters a chance to list the political issues they care most about, same-sex marriage typically draws responses in the low single digits.

“I don’t think the Democrats should be too concerned” about a backlash over gay marriage, says Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University in Missouri. As an issue, banning same-sex marriage “ranks way down there. Right now, the top ones are terrorism, the economy, Iraq and health care.”

Currently, nine states — Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah — will have anti-same-sex marriage initiatives on the ballot this fall. Similar initiatives are close to making the ballot in Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio.

Gay-marriage advocates are putting on a brave face. “This is all part of a broader effort to distract the American people from the issues they care about most — the war in Iraq, the hemorrhaging of jobs, the cost of health care,” says Steven Fisher, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign. “Ultimately, we think voters will see through this.”

But the number of these initiatives now pending is impressive, and on policy grounds, social conservatives have a lot to cheer about. If the primary voting in Missouri is any indication, many of this fall’s initiatives should pass easily, thus advancing the movement’s policy goals on the state level, where much of the action on marriage regulation occurs anyway. Already, five states — Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada and Missouri — have constitutional amendments barring gay marriage.

“The magic number for us is 38 states — what we will need to ratify a federal amendment,” says Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage. “If we can get a federal marriage amendment out of the Beltway, and especially out of the Senate, our chance of success in the states is very good.”

Still, the impact on the presidential race, or on major statewide races, could be much more limited. Louisiana’s initiative, for instance, is on the September ballot, and thus will have no effect on the presidential race or Congressional races. Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah and North Dakota are all “red” states that are solidly in the president’s camp, and none of them save Oklahoma is holding a hotly contested Senate race this fall.

That leaves only a few competitive presidential battlegrounds with anti-same-sex initiatives on the ballot in November. They are the intensely courted Ohio, Democratic-leaning Michigan and Oregon, and Republican-leaning Arkansas.

But even there, say in-state politicos, it’s not clear that same-sex marriage will make a difference in the presidential race.

First off, the Missouri example may not be repeated elsewhere. The Democratic ballot included a hotly contested primary between Bob Holden, a sitting governor with low approval ratings, and state Auditor Claire McCaskill. This face-off may have juiced turnout as much as, or more than, the initiative did.

Moreover, the Missouri vote took place in a primary, which tends to draw fewer voters to the polls than a general election does — but more voters who are politically active. In a general election, Warren says, “people will be turned out by the presidential race at the top of the ticket.”

Analysts across the country agree. With a polarized and energized electorate forced to pass judgment on Bush’s eventful and controversial first term, most experts doubt that there’s a large bloc of voters who are completely unengaged by the presidential race but who will suddenly turn out to the polls simply because an anti-gay-marriage initiative is on the ballot.

Most voters who are likely to be swayed by an anti-gay-marriage pitch, the thinking goes, are already fired up to vote for Bush in the first place. “I won’t say there’s no one, but I will say it will be extremely small,” says Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon, one of the states weighing an anti-gay-marriage initiative this fall.

The key factor, Hibbitts says, is that this is not an election being held in the midst of peace and prosperity. “If this were 1988 or 1996 or 2000, this issue would have a huge potential to hurt the Democrats,” he says. “But the issues aren’t flag-burning or Willie Horton or school uniforms. It’s the big stuff this year.”

The more likely impact, analysts say, will be downballot. In Michigan, where the only major races on tap for this fall are for the state House, the issue has already packed a wallop in the Republican primary, says Bill Ballenger, the editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

Earlier this year, only three Republicans in the Michigan House voted against legislation to place a same-sex-marriage ban on the statewide ballot. Of those three, one is term-limited and cannot run for re-election. But the other two legislators, both otherwise strong candidates, faced big scares in the primary from challengers who made an issue of their gay-marriage vote.

Leon Drolet, a libertarian-leaning legislator from the blue-collar suburb of Macomb County, ultimately beat back challenger Marie Carl, but only after “sweating bullets for weeks,” Ballenger says.

The second legislator, Lorence Wenke of Kalamazoo County, faced a challenge by former state Rep. Jerry Vander Roest. Wenke spent a record $200,000 in the primary, received the backing of Michigan’s leading right-to-life group, and saw his opponent tarred by an article in the local paper alleging that Vander Roest had once been arrested for soliciting a prostitute.

Despite all that, Wenke eked out a victory by just 65 votes. “This issue is potent,” Ballenger says. “Obviously, this was all taking place in a Republican primary. How potent it will be in a general election is the $64,000 question.”

It will hardly be welcome news to advocates of same-sex marriage, but a recent race in Kentucky suggests a sure-fire way for Democrats to avoid electoral difficulties: They can come out squarely against gay marriage.

In a special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat in rural western Kentucky, the Republican candidate, David Thomason, made a big issue of supporting the upcoming ballot measure to ban gay marriage. But the Democrat, Dorsey Ridley, convinced voters that he didn’t differ with his opponent on the issue — and Ridley won.

That result seems to have cooled, at least temporarily, local Republican leaders’ focus on same-sex marriage, says Lowell Reese, editor of the Kentucky Gazette. Reese notes that at the Fancy Farm Political Picnic — the traditional kickoff of Kentucky’s fall political season — same-sex marriage barely came up at all during the political speeches.

That said, Reese adds, the response from the rank and file was strong whenever the issue did surface. When Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) merely mentioned that the issue was on the ballot, it drew the loudest sustained response of anything Bunning said, according to Reese.

In Louisiana, the measure should only affect turnout for the September elections for school board and sheriff in New Orleans, plus some lower offices in other parts of the state, says Clancy DuBos, political columnist for the Gambit Weekly newspaper. But the fact that the measure is on the ballot has forced many Louisiana candidates at all levels, most notably Democrats, to take a stand on the controversial issue — and the results, DuBos says, are clear.

“Other than in the city of New Orleans, I’d be shocked if any mainstream officeholder came out against the measure,” he says.

Forcing politicians to take a stance on same-sex marriage, however, holds out some hope for those who advocate allowing gay marriage. Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal group that tracks ballot measures nationwide, suggests by taking too active a stance against gay marriage, the Republican Party could be branding itself as intolerant to swing voters, especially young Americans.

Wilfore draws a parallel to California Proposition 187 — a mid-1990s measure backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) that denied most human services to illegal immigrants. While the initiative passed, it turned the state’s fast-growing Hispanic community firmly against the Republican Party — and helped make the Democrats a solid majority party statewide.

“So while you can assume this issue will be a short-term benefit to Republicans, the party needs to ask itself, what is the long-term cost?” she says.

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