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A sheep in wolf’s clothing?
The GOP is trying to turn same-sex-marriage rights into a national wedge issue, but it could work in Kerry’s favor

IF BUSH POLITICAL strategist Karl Rove gets his way in the 2004 presidential race, the contentious issue of gay marriage will play a role in the campaign. It’s not something President Bush will necessarily tout on the national stage. Rather, the dream scenario casts gay marriage as more of a sleeper issue, always there, always lurking in the background. That way, at strategic moments Republicans can exploit the issue to fire up their base of religious conservatives, frighten those all-important undecided voters, and pummel the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry, as Mr. Anti-family — thereby drawing out a pro-Bush shadow vote come November.

Call it the GOP master plan. Ever since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last November that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, most observers have expected Republican strategists to use the issue to their advantage. Their strategy became clear last month when the US Senate Republican leadership accelerated its push to amend the US Constitution to ban same-sex nuptials by defining marriage as "the union of a man and a woman." For months, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican, had been signaling to supporters of the Federal Marriage Amendment, or FMA, that he would not schedule a vote on it before November. He even stated that he didn’t think amending the Constitution was something to rush. On June 18, though, Frist quickly changed his tune: he announced that he would schedule Senate debate and a vote on the FMA for the week of July 12 — just two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, in Boston.

Naturally, Frist has denied that the change of course was politically motivated. Two days after making his announcement, on June 20, the majority leader insisted on Fox News Sunday that the FMA debate has nothing to do with electoral politics. Instead, he blamed the vote on "activist" judges in Massachusetts: "I bring it up because right now a court in Massachusetts, May 17, activist judges have come forward and said, ‘We’re going to redefine marriage,’" he said. "In response to activist judges there, and these marriages that are occurring around the country, it is incumbent for people to speak" through Congress.

It’s hard nonetheless to see the sudden push for the FMA as anything but playing to the grandstands. After all, the measure appears headed for defeat. Its backers have admitted that they do not have the 67 votes needed to pass it in the Senate. (A federal constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, and then must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.) Observers doubt that backers have the 60 votes required to cut off an expected Democratic filibuster during the debate. Indeed, according to Chris Anders, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes the measure, Senate Republicans don’t even have a 51-person simple majority on their side. Anders says that it’s "not very common" for something that has virtually no chance of passing to go to a vote, although he admits it’s not unheard-of. Not long ago, for instance, the majority leader introduced several right-wing judicial candidacies to the Senate floor for a vote, even though their nominations had been stuck in committee and thus had no real chance of proceeding. Likewise, Frist submitted portions of the Bush administration’s failed energy bill to the floor, to no avail.

"Usually when Frist does that, he’s trying to make a political statement," Anders explains. In this case, he adds, "Senate backers are far, far away from getting the votes that they need to get to actually pass this amendment. Which raises the question: if you’re 20 votes away, why bring this to the floor in the first place?"

TO PUT IT another way, Republican strategists are not out to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage so much as they are determined to put Kerry — the senator whose state foisted gay marriage on the nation — on the spot. Such a political tactic, if you believe the conventional wisdom, can only benefit President Bush. According to the latest poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 59 percent of Americans oppose civil-marriage rights for gays and lesbians, while 32 percent favor such rights — a two-to-one margin that has remained steady despite all the media attention lavished on the issue. Perhaps more important to Rove and company are the numbers of voters who regard same-sex marriage as a make-or-break election issue. The Pew Center’s polling data show that as much as a third of gay-marriage opponents would refuse to vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on the issue — even if they agree with the candidate on other issues. By comparison, only six percent of gay-marriage supporters would decline to cast a ballot for a candidate who rejects same-sex nuptials.

"There is your electoral disparity," notes Michael Dimock, the Pew Center’s pollster. "The sense is there is more intensity on this issue on the anti side than on the pro side."

By pushing the FMA, the thinking goes, the Bush campaign can tap into this fierce public sentiment while at the same time catering to its base of religious and social conservatives, which has been pressuring congressional Republicans to act on the amendment. John Green, a University of Akron professor who studies religion and politics, explains that the FMA vote will motivate Christian-right activists within the GOP. The religious right will use the record of the July 12 vote to draw up a list of Democrats and Republicans who oppose its agenda nationwide. And its leaders will exploit the anticipated defeat of the amendment as a symbol — one that can help mobilize rank-and-file religious conservatives by proving how staunchly Bush and the Republican leadership stand behind them. "If the activists become zealous and engaged," Green says, "they can arouse voters on a host of social issues," including gay marriage, abortion, and school vouchers.

Already, the GOP strategy has produced the desired effect. On June 25, Christian-right leaders began gearing up for the July 12 vote by urging churches across the country to declare July 11 "Protect Marriage Sunday." National religious-right organizations such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and the Campaign for Working Families are all promoting the event.

In the June 25 edition of his electronic newsletter "Falwell Confidential," posted on his Web site, the Reverend Jerry Falwell called on his fellow conservative-evangelical pastors "to lift up the God-ordained institution of marriage in their sermons on July 11, and to make clear the serious pitfalls which same-sex ‘marriage,’ polygamy and other diverse family forms present." He encouraged them to distribute cards listing Senate numbers, "making it very easy for people to call their senators the next day." And he vowed to "help rally the troops in the cause to protect traditional marriage."

Republican masterminds want to excite people like Falwell — people whom Green terms "this intense minority of activists" — because they can turn out the pro-Bush vote come November. Getting a high religious-conservative turnout isn’t critical in hard-core red states like South Carolina or Georgia, Green says, since voters there will back Bush no matter what. And in hard-core blue states like Massachusetts and New York, the Republicans would be hard-pressed even to identify a significant minority of right-wing Christians.

Where the GOP plan matters is in what Green calls "the purple states" — the handful of swing states in the South and Midwest, where the Christian right constitutes a political force. Of the 17 or so states up for grabs in the 2004 presidential election, he cites Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania as places where the get-out-the-Christian-right-vote tactic could swing the final tally in Bush’s direction because staunch gay-marriage opponents outnumber their counterparts. "You have a small, yet intense minority of people who care about this issue and will vote based on it," Green explains. And because this election is expected to be close, he adds, "any small group can become the key to victory."

Factor in the fact that many of the 2004 battleground states — Missouri, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, and Arkansas — may feature referendum questions barring same-sex couples from civil marriage on their own November ballots, and the Christian-conservative vote seems even more likely to sway the election. Sean Cahill, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, says anti-gay-marriage initiatives could appear as ballot questions in up to 26 states nationwide. If that’s the case, millions of Americans — he estimates one in four voters — will cast a ballot on the issue this year. "These state amendments pose more of a threat to Kerry than the federal amendment does," Cahill points out, "because they will help turn out evangelical voters who support Bush."

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Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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