October 28, 2006

Will New Jersey Gay Marriage Ruling Energize Republicans?

This column on Time.com opines that it just might:

"What Republicans are hoping is that they can use the issue of gay marriage and the ruling to motivate conservatives in key states like Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia, where Republicans are in danger of losing Senate seats. Polls this year have shown small, but measurable drop-offs in enthusiasm from Christian conservatives and there's some worry about whether they will stay home on Election Day, particularly after the Foley scandal, which some conservative leaders blamed on congressional Republicans for being too afraid to take action against Foley earlier because it might be perceived as anti-gay.

Measures to ban gay marriage are on the ballot in nine states, including Virginia and Tennessee, and conservative activists will point to the New Jersey decision as a reason people in those states should go to the polls, even if they're dissatisfied with how the Republican majority has run the country. If that message resonates, the same people celebrating the New Jersey decision could be having mixed feelings about it come election day."

This column in the New Republic disagrees: (via the site Faith in Public Life):

But Democrats should relax. It's true that Rove and Co. will do their best to make this case a decisive electoral issue. But that won't be the cakewalk Democrats have nightmares about. America in 2004 is not America in 2006, Lewis is not Goodridge, and, no matter how much Rove might hope for an early Christmas, gay marriage fear-mongering isn't going to be the eleventh-hour savior that Republicans need.

For one big reason why, look no further than the substance of the opinion. Much like Goodridge, Lewis insists that the "unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution." But, unlike Goodridge, Lewis leaves an important question--what should we call this new bundle of rights?--to the state legislature, which has 180 days to provide an answer. The difference in substance will make a difference in the politics.....

And, because the court punts the definitional question to the legislature, Republicans will have difficulty deploying their favorite mythical creature--the crazed, power-thirsty liberal judge, brazenly sweeping aside the democratic will of a helpless public to pursue her own narrow vision of the good life......

The activist-judge trope will fail not just because the legislature is being kept in the picture, but because public consensus in the state is starting to favor gay marriage. A June poll by Rutger's Eagleton Institute for Politics found that "New Jerseyans, by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent ... support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally." And, when you drop the word marriage, as the court did, the support is even more robust: 65 percent of state residents support giving same-sex couples "many of the same rights and benefits as a married man and woman." Only 30 percent are opposed.

Support for the decision aside, there's also a serious question about how receptive the Republican base will be to the typical "homosexual agenda" scare tactics. This year's ballot initiatives raise that question better than anything else. When the Times did a roundup of the 2006 initiatives, it found, amazingly, that "supporters of same-sex marriage this year are likely to be as mobilized as the opponents." Whereas many of the 2004 ballot initiatives passed with popular support topping 70 percent, polling in Arizona, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin--four of the states with ballot initiatives up this November--show only narrow majorities in favor of them. In South Dakota, the ballot initiative might actually fail. The case might cause some polarization, but if the Times report is true, it should motivate both sides equally. This is not the stuff of 2004.

This is a desperate time for Republicans, and they will reach for anything that can stop their slide toward defeat. But there is little that indicates gay marriage is the right piece of underbrush to cling to: This case is not going to fire up that base. Call it homosexuality fatigue. Call it whatever you want. (Or leave it up to the legislature!) Just don't expect Republican demagogues to be able to change it.

The evangelical vote will probably be the largest undefinable wild card in the 2006 election, and the rights of same-sex couples to marry in several states is one of the main things hanging in the balance.

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