Analysts on both sides think it’s one factor among many
In the wealthy swing districts of Minneapolis’ western suburbs, the gay marriage amendment that will appear on the 2012 ballot lands outside voters’ chief concerns of taxes, education and the overall health of the economy.
So could Republican legislative incumbents and challengers along Highways 100 and 169 be in for a backlash thanks to the GOP Legislature’s injection of gay marriage into the campaign?
In the early going, political pros on both sides of the aisle think the ballot question is unlikely to galvanize a concerted backlash against the GOP in the Twin Cities’ western suburbs despite the area’s moderate profile on social issues. But with voters already angry over the government shutdown and the temporary patch that legislators concocted with the governor to fix a $5 billion budget deficit, the focus on non-budgetary issues like gay marriage could underscore questions that voters in the political battleground area have about lawmakers’ job performance and sense of priorities.
Clint Faust, the chairman of the Senate District 43 DFL, said the controversy over the marriage amendment won’t determine the fate of Republican legislative candidates in the area, which includes Minnetonka and Plymouth. But he nonetheless believes it could help DFLers.
“I think the more the social conservatives are dictating the agenda and talking points for Republicans, the better we’ll do in the moderate suburbs,” Faust said. “It could be a positive for us. I don’t see it being a huge impact in terms of switching votes at the legislative level. But I will say this: In the most swing of districts, which is 43 right now … I think it helps all [DFL candidates],” Faust said.
Proponents of the marriage amendment made a successful effort late in this year’s legislative session to approve a ballot question that will ask Minnesotans if the state’s Constitution should be amended so that marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman. Constitutional amendment questions bypass the governor and go straight to the ballot.
Geography appears to be among a variety of factors in gauging support for the amendment. The Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in May found that opposition to the ban on gay marriage is much larger in the seven-county metro area than in greater Minnesota. Thirty-six percent of the respondents in the metro area favored constitutionally banning gay marriage, while 59 percent said they opposed the ban. The poll, which was criticized by amendment supporters, also reported the gay marriage ban has more opposition than support in greater Minnesota, but the margin was a narrower, at 49 percent to 42 percent.
Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP strategist for legislative campaigns, said the gay marriage issue won’t topple the area’s top campaign issues of jobs, education and taxes. Instead, he thinks, the issue will play out in the course of normal retail politics.
“I think it’s a door-knocking issue,” Peppin said. “I think when candidates go door-to-door, they may be asked by people who are passionate about the issue, one way or the other. But it’s certainly not going to be in campaign literature. I don’t necessarily see it as being one of the key drivers of any of the legislative elections out there.”
While observers assert gay marriage won’t dictate the results of elections in the western suburbs, there is a historical view that Republicans in the area get disenchanted with the party when social issues crowd out bread-and-butter issues like education and transportation.
While many of the area’s DFL legislative pickups in the last decade happened when President George W. Bush’s popularity was at its lowest, the GOP’s dominance started to show some wear in 2004 when Bush was re-elected to a second term. That election occurred shortly after with a major but unsuccessful push at the state Legislature and at the national level to ban gay marriage. During the 2004 session, the Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill. In that fall’s election, in which the GOP-controlled House was on the ballot but the DFL-controlled Senate wasn’t up for election, voters expressed their scorn for a “do-nothing” Legislature that was preoccupied by the social agenda being pushed by the conservative right and its chief spokesperson at the time, state Sen. Michele Bachmann.
DFLer Maria Ruud of Minnetonka upset Republican Peter Adolphson in 2004. In that same year, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry beat Bush in the 3rd Congressional District in the western Twin Cities. That came four years after Bush beat the 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore in the 3rd CD.
With numerous upsets in the suburbs and greater Minnesota in the 2006 and 2008 elections, DFLers built up fat majorities in the House and Senate until the Republican wave election last fall reversed those gains.
While some of the 2010 pick-ups were already Republican-leaning districts, the election results in the western suburbs suggest that Republicans can’t yet declare their 2010 gains to be a secure reclamation of their old turf.
In District 43, Rep. John Benson and Sen. Terri Bonoff, who replaced Republicans when they were first elected, held onto their seats. Ruud, who was characterized as “renting” the 42A seat in 2006 by former GOP Chairman Ron Carey, was defeated last year by Republican Kirk Stensrud of Eden Prairie by 107 votes, or less than 1 percent.
Darin Broton, a strategist and DFLer, said there’s a possibility that other ballot initiatives supported by Republicans (such as requiring photo IDs at the polls) will get passed onto the general election ballot. If voters are bombarded with initiatives that are popular with the GOP’s conservative base at the same time that the state budget and economy are in shambles, he said, moderates in the western suburbs might retaliate.
“If the economy is still in the stalled or barely moving stage, I don’t know if gay marriage by itself is going to rile people up as an issue,” Broton said. “The piece that will blow up is: This is what you decided to work on this year and this cycle? With all the problems Minnesota has, you dealt with gay marriage and you dealt with photo ID and all these other pieces that folks don’t understand why this is an issue?”
The geography factor in the gay marriage debate is uncertain, because redistricting is yet to be completed. Concerns about the gay marriage controversy will lessen for Republicans in places like Edina and Minnetonka if their districts are drawn out to the GOP strongholds west of Highway 169. If Republicans reps like Stensrud, Pat Mazorol of Bloomington and Keith Downey of Edina are drawn closer to the city of Minneapolis, they will likely face sharper criticism on the marriage issue.
“The short answer is I do believe there will be problems over in the western suburbs with the gay marriage amendment,” Broton said. “But whether it will be a deciding factor is yet to be seen. I think the bigger issue is what the lines look like.”