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One year later, gay marriage repeal appears to be on backburner
While the fight to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was always considered an uphill battle, many observers felt it would ultimately become a political liability for Democrats during the 2010 elections. But time, polling and electoral success appears to have stiffened their resolve, and with the country in the midst of an economic recession, the issue appears to be on the political backburner.
Case in point is Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.
Prior to the ruling, Culver said he would be willing to call legislators into special session to “do whatever it takes to protect marriage between a man and a woman.” On the day of the court’s decision, Culver released a tepid statement, saying he wanted to review the ruling with the attorney general before “reacting to what it means for Iowa.” It was nearly a week before the governor released a statement saying that while he personally believed marriage was between one man and one woman, he was “reluctant to support amending the Iowa Constitution” to overturn the court’s ruling.
Flash forward to this week, just a few days before the ruling’s one-year anniversary, and Culver’s position has become more steadfast.
“We stood firm for the civil rights of every Iowan by saying loudly and clearly that any and all efforts to add discriminatory amendments to our state constitution have no place in our state constitution,” Culver said, later adding: “The overwhelming majority of Iowans do not want to amend our constitution in such as a way that’s discriminatory. I think that’s the bottom line.”
A year ago, in the waning weeks of the legislative session, Republicans tried numerous procedural maneuvers to force a vote on marriage. This year, the issue came up once, with lawmakers in both chambers making a push just before the funnel-week deadline. After failing to garner enough support to force a vote, attention returned to the state’s budget, a topic that dominated the session.
While the issue remains salient, especially to evangelical voters that make up the base of the Republican Party, gay-marriage advocates say the political tide has turned and Iowans have begun to move on.
“A majority of Iowans just aren’t interested in talking about this issue,” said Brad Clark, campaign director for One Iowa. “People want to talk about the bread and butter issues, and I think people campaigning on marriage will see their message fall flat.”
Clark points to the special election held in House District 90 last September. The race became ground zero for the gay marriage battle, with national groups spending thousands to get their message to voters. The National Organization for Marriage alone raised and spent nearly $100,000 to support the Republican in the rural southeastern district.
Ultimately, though, the Democrat prevailed.
In the aftermath, many Republicans pointed to poor strategy and a district that historically leans Democrat as the reason for their defeat. Clark said it was also a rejection of the brand of politics that favors exclusion over equal rights.
Of course, not everyone shares Clark’s belief. Bryan English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, told the Marshalltown Times Republican that groups like his won’t have to go out of their way to make marriage an issue this fall, because “it is an issue.”
English’s group has put the marriage issue center stage in the Republican gubernatorial primary. In January, it vowed to sit out the fall campaign if the GOP nominates former Gov. Terry Branstad, whom the IFPC said “failed to boldly address the values that we embrace.” Their main disagreement with Branstad is what they perceive as a lack of conviction on the marriage issue. Their candidate of choice is Bob Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman who has vowed to issue an executive order putting a stay on the Supreme Court’s decision until lawmakers pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
English told the Times Republican that his group is willing to watch Republicans go down in defeat this fall if it means turning back Republicans who don’t align with their Christian worldview.
“We answer to God, not to a political party,” he said.
A September Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found Iowans almost evenly divided about whether they would vote for or against a constitutional amendment to end same-sex marriage, with 41 percent supporting a ban and 40 percent opposing. And while 43 percent say they oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling, a whopping 63 percent say other issues are more important going into the fall election.
Nearly all — 92 percent — say gay marriage has brought no real change to their lives.
By February, 62 percent said lawmakers have more important things to worry about than same-sex marriage.
So just how much impact marriage will have on the fall campaign in hard to measure. Winning back legislative majorities is the only way forward for those hoping to pass a marriage amendment, since Democratic leaders have vowed to thwart any attempt to pass the amendment while they are in charge. On the eve of the 2010 legislative session, conservatives conceded that until Republicans oust Democratic leadership the marriage issue is dead.
For One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, he fight to preserve gay marriage is far from over.
“Republicans are still promising to make this an issue,” Clark said. “We have to get out and engage in conversation with Iowans. I think ultimately, the reasonable nature of Iowans will prevail. At their core, Iowans don’t want to treat their neighbor any differently than they are treated.”