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Marriage fight heats up suburban races

Briana Bierschbach//October 3, 2012

Marriage fight heats up suburban races

Briana Bierschbach//October 3, 2012

Keith Downey talks with members of the Edina High School Gay-Straight Alliance. The students visited the Capitol as part of OutFront Minnesota's annual rally for gay rights. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Amendment battle puts Republicans, some rural DFLers on defensive

It was one of the first questions a voter asked of two suburban Minnesota House candidates at a recent forum: How were they planning to vote on the two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall?

One amendment would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. That question was easy for Republican House District 49B candidate Terry Jacobson, an Edina community activist who said she looked forward to voting yes on the ballot initiative. When it came time to stake out her position on the second, considerably more controversial amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Jacobson stumbled, telling a packed room in the Edina Community Center that she was simply “happy voters get to vote on this.” Bill Glahn, the Republican candidate running for the neighboring House seat in Edina, echoed Jacobson when he addressed voters at a similar debate, part of a series of forums hosted by the League of Women Voters.

“No matter what Edina votes,” Glahn said, “I’ll honor what the city of Edina believes.”

The dilemma facing Glahn and Jacobson in Edina is not uncommon this cycle as the fight for the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage trickles down into a handful of key legislative races across the state. In some of the state’s more affluent, socially moderate suburbs in the western Twin Cities, Republican incumbents and challengers are fielding tough questions about the amendment. The same dynamic is playing out in reverse for some DFL candidates in outstate Minnesota, where socially conservative voters are applauding the move to put the measure on the ballot. The dynamic has candidates from both parties trying to change the conversation.

“Most of the candidates have been focused on every other issue when they are out on the stump. It’s been all about budgets and the economy,” said Republican operative Carl Kuhl, who worked on Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and is now a consultant for Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group campaigning against the amendment.

But as the campaigns head into the final weeks before Election Day, the marriage fight has emerged as the marquee issue of the cycle, especially in the face of Minnesota’s unexciting races for the U.S. Senate and president. With just a few seats’ difference between Democrats and majority Republicans in the Minnesota Senate and House, operatives from both sides say turnout driven by the marriage amendment could tip the scale in targeted legislative races. Democrats especially are hoping to pick up seats in the suburbs and college towns as a result of anti-amendment fervor.

“The marquee things on the ballot this year are these constitutional amendments, specifically this one,” Kuhl said. “There’s been a substantial amount of money raised, and as time goes on, the more you are seeing this bubble up in these legislative races. It’s what’s top of mind for people, and as you’re knocking on doors, it’s coming up more and more. This is the defining thing for the 2012 election in Minnesota.”

Some suburban Republicans feel the heat

If the marriage amendment is tightening the race for first-time candidates in Edina, the situation may be more serious for Republican Rep. Keith Downey, who voted in favor of the amendment and is now running for the area’s Senate seat. Downey is competing with DFLer and Target attorney Melisa Franzen for an open seat that is being vacated by retiring Edina GOP Sen. Geoff Michel.

“It was a tight race to begin with, and this just, depending on who shows up, this could make it tighter for him,” said Rick Weible, mayor of St. Bonifacius and co-chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republicans. “Edina does have a strong DFL area in the northwest area. He needs to get out and present his issues and his strengths.” Weible, however, feels confident that Downey will triumph this cycle, mainly because of his campaign’s ability to “stay above the fray” and focus its message on economic issues.

The situation is similar in Eagan, another key swing district where Republicans took all three seats last cycle. This cycle, those same Republicans are defending their votes in the Legislature, including their vote on the marriage amendment. While some Eagan pastors have been active in favor of the amendment, more voters appear to be against the amendment than for it, said former senator and DFL candidate Jim Carlson. “I’ve seen two ‘Vote yes’ signs in Eagan,” Carlson said. “I think the people that are going to vote no are going to come out in droves.”

But Michael Kaess, chairman of the Senate District 51 Republicans, says he sees the mood slowly shifting in Eagan, due mainly to independent voters who are coming over to the GOP position on the marriage amendment. “When I’m out door-knocking, I find not a large majority — but over 50 percent — are for the amendment,” he said. “If you take into account the number of signs, yes versus no, it’s getting to almost a 50-50 [split]; before it was a lot more no’s out there.”

The issue is also coming up in the Minnetonka-area Senate race between DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff and former Republican Sen. David Gaither, who was a strong advocate for a gay marriage ban while serving in the chamber in 2004. “He’s running on this,” Senate DFL staffer Mike Kennedy said. “He’s not backing away from it.”

“In a lot of suburban districts, I think [voter] opposition to the amendment is probably the dominant position — not overwhelmingly dominant, but still the dominant position,” said Tom Horner, former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate and an Edina resident who is consulting for the “Vote No” effort. “I’m seeing a lot of ‘Vote no’ signs out here. It is creating a lot of challenges for Republicans, who are frankly responsible for this in the first place.”

DFLers eye college towns, fear rural losses

The same problem facing Republicans in the suburbs is also facing Democrats in outstate Minnesota, where the voting population appears to be emphatically in favor of the amendment.

In Senate District 9, first-term Sen. Paul Gazelka is actively campaigning on the amendment, which he authored during a previous term in the state House. He is traveling to churches and bazaars to emphasize that he was an ardent and early supporter. Gazelka beat GOP Sen. Paul Koering, the only openly gay Republican in the Minnesota Legislature, for the endorsement in 2010.

But Gazelka’s DFL challenger, Al Doty, a former House member from Royalton, is only talking about the amendment when asked. “They are already on the ballot, so people should go vote,” Doty said. “If they have questions about what the amendments mean, I will talk about that, but how I vote behind those curtains and how they vote behind those curtains, we still have that [privacy] right. It’s completely separate from who you vote for.”

In outstate college towns like Northfield, St. Cloud and Winona, Democratic operatives are hoping students will turn out en masse to vote for President Barack Obama and against the amendment, swinging the pendulum back to Democrats in critical races the party lost in 2010.

Northfield’s Senate District 20 is almost equally divided, with one House district covering rural, socially conservative cities and townships and the other district encompassing the DFL-leaning town of Northfield and the Carleton College and St. Olaf campuses.

Some area operatives believe college turnout could tip the Senate race there in favor of DFLer Kevin Dahle over Republican Michael Dudley. DFLers are working on get-out-the-vote efforts on the campuses after a severe drop in student turnout in 2010. “In a very close race, if you have a few hundred votes [from students], it does make a difference,” said DFL candidate David Bly, of Northfield, who is running to regain his House seat in 20B.

“For us, [the marriage amendment is a] big game changer on the college campuses, and that’s where a lot of our targets are,” Kennedy said, naming cities like Winona, St. Cloud, Northfield, Bemidji and Moorhead. “We feel like it’s going to alter the equation in some of these districts.”

GOP Senate elections staffer Gregg Peppin says the presence of the marriage amendment in legislative campaigns is generally overplayed by Democrats. “Candidates are talking about it if asked, and they are being open about their position on the Republican side, and that’s about the extent of it,” Peppin said. “I’m not hearing about it as a front-burner issue despite what Democrats might want people to think.”

Horner, a longtime Republican before he switched to the IP, describes the amendment as one of “many issues” facing voters. But in the end, he expects the amendment will produce more upsets of Republicans than losses for Democrats.

Kennedy is willing to bet that Republicans will pay for the vote in their legislative races. “I think where it’s going to pay the most dividends is the suburbs and the college towns,” he said. “I think Republicans are going to find that they were too cute by half with this one.”

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