Shifting views on gay marriage now favor Democrats

DENVER (AP) — It wasn’t all that long ago that
Republicans used gay marriage as a tool to drive Election Day turnout.
But as public opinion on the issue has turned and courts strike down
same-sex marriage bans, gay rights is evolving into a wedge issue for
Democrats to wield.
Consider Pennsylvania, where Democrats have
lambasted Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for comparing gay marriage to
incest. Facing a tough re-election campaign, Corbett decided this week
not to appeal a federal court ruling striking down the state’s ban of
gay marriage.
Or Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is
hitting his Republican challenger for casting votes that denied gay
people protection from discrimination. In Arizona, Democrats plan to
hammer Republican legislators who passed a law allowing businesses to
refuse to serve gays for religious reasons.
"We’re just beginning
to see this, and we will see a lot more in the midterms," said Richard
Socarides, an activist who was President Bill Clinton’s adviser on gay
rights. "It will be an incredible shift by the time we get to the
(presidential) election in 2016."
That election will arrive 20
years after Republicans in Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act,
which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Clinton
signed the bill defensively, worried the GOP would use it as a campaign
issue, Socarides said. Republican activists put anti-gay marriage
initiatives on the ballot in 11 states in 2004, helping President George
W. Bush win re-election with the support of conservative religious
voters motivated to turn out to support the bans.
Connie Mackey,
head of the conservative Family Research Council’s Political Action
Committee, said that’s still a solid strategy. Voters still oppose gay
marriage, she argued, and Republicans should not let themselves get
faked out by overconfident Democrats.
"The people in the states think one way and the establishment and the courts are showing a different
face," Mackey said.
But
gay marriage, supported by less than one-third of Americans in 2004, is
now supported by a solid majority in recent polls, with approval
highest among younger voters. Some Republicans believe that mounting
public support represents a danger to their party, and they are
scrambling to prevent Democrats from using the issue of gay rights in
the same way some in their own party did for years.
"They want to
bait Republicans into talking about the issue in a way that ties them to
a negative, national Republican brand," said Kevin Madden, a Republican
strategist who hasn’t taken a position on gay marriage. "They need to
stir up their base and create outrage."
Nevada Republicans dropped
their opposition to gay marriage last month from the state party’s
platform, and a national campaign is underway to remove such language
from the national party platform in 2016. Major Republican donors have
formed a coalition to push the party to become more gay-friendly.
That
shift broke into the open in Arizona earlier this year after social
conservatives pushed legislation allowing businesses to refuse service
to gays and lesbians through the Republican-controlled Statehouse. An
outcry from business organizations and national Republicans led GOP Gov.
Jan Brewer to veto the measure, but the issue is likely to figure in at
least two of the state’s competitive congressional races where
Democrats are defending seats, as well as the governor’s race.
"This
is something that really drives a wedge through their party and
motivates turnout in ours, and it’s the right thing to do," said D.J.
Quinlan, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
The
politics of gay rights have changed perhaps most dramatically in
Colorado. In 1992, voters passed a law prohibiting any city or county
from protecting gays and lesbians under their laws against
discrimination. That measure was eventually struck down by the U.S.
Supreme Court, but voters went on to ban same-sex marriage in 2006.
Those
actions inspired several major donors to invest in expanding the
state’s Democratic party. At the same time, an influx of younger voters
moved to the state from the coasts. A decade-long winning streak
followed for Democrats at the top of the ticket.
"A lot of these
moderate, independent voters want people who are not haters," said Steve
Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and chair of the Gay & Lesbian
Victory Fund.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet narrowly defeated a
Republican challenge in 2010 after the GOP candidate compared
homosexuality to alcoholism. The next year, Democratic Gov. John
Hickenlooper shamed Republicans in control of the state House for
refusing to grant gay couples civil unions. The GOP lost control of the
chamber in 2012, and Hickenlooper signed a civil unions bill last year.
Seeking
re-election this year against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, Udall has
highlighted his opponent’s support as a state lawmaker for laws barring
adoption by gay parents and opposition to adding protections for gay
people to nondiscrimination clauses. "This is a key difference between
Rep. Gardner and me," Udall said in an interview.
Gardner, who
cast a vote in Congress that would have required the Justice Department
to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, replied in a statement that he
does not believe "anyone should be discriminated against." The issue,
Gardner added, has no place in the campaign.
"While others may
seek to divide Colorado on these sensitive issues, you won’t be hearing
any rhetoric from me like that during this campaign," he said.