Republican legislators who voted in favor of a controversial bill to legalize gay marriage last session are now back home in their districts, and some of them are dealing with blowback from that decision.
In the end, only five Republican legislators cast votes in favor of gay marriage, despite the fact that more than 29 GOP lawmakers hail from districts that defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage last fall.
Four of those GOP votes came from the House after Republican Rep. David FitzSimmons, a first-term lawmaker from Albertville, offered an 11th-hour amendment to the House bill establishing “civil marriages.” Those GOP “yes” votes included FitzSimmons as well as suburban Reps. Andrea Kieffer (Woodbury), Jenifer Loon (Eden Prairie), and Pat Garofalo (Farmington). GOP Sen. Branden Petersen, who became a co-sponsor of the gay marriage bill back in February, was the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill in the Senate.
With the 2013 session and the vote now in the rear-view mirror, legislators say the reaction back home has been a mixture of opposition and support. But local GOP activists have been blunter in their assessments, noting that lingering resentments over the vote could complicate those legislators’ chances of winning the GOP endorsement in future elections. Other activists are concerned about the prospect of GOP lawmakers accepting help from pro-gay marriage political groups that will, in other races around the state, work to defeat Republican candidates.
Senate District 35 GOP chairwoman Nancy Bendtsen said Petersen’s decision to support gay marriage has generated a wide variety of reactions. “Some people were mad, and other people wrote 15-page dissertations, and other people supported him. It’s just not a simple thing,” Bendtsen said. “Many activists were on the fence about gay marriage because the whole issue isn’t Republican or Democrat, it’s much more personal.”
Republicans take heat for gay marriage stance
Residents of House District 53B have had mixed reactions to Kieffer’s yes vote, and she’s hardly surprised. That’s what Kieffer had been hearing all along, first during the campaign for the amendment, which received support from 43 percent of voters in her district, and then in the constituent survey she sent out ahead of the gay marriage vote.
“It’s very much a generational thing, that’s no big surprise. Younger people are much more understanding of my vote than older generation voters,” she said. “What I always go back to is the fact that Republicans put this question on the ballot two years ago. The Republicans opened this up, they let the people decide and they decided.”
Mostly, Kieffer says people in her southeastern suburban House district just want to talk about something — anything — other than gay marriage. After a nearly two-year campaign against the amendment, followed by the push for legalization, there’s some gay marriage fatigue in Minnesota.
“It’s not a priority issue for probably the majority of people. They would have preferred to let sleeping dogs lie,” she said. “Most people in my district are talking about the budget and talking about tax increases and talking about government spending. Those are very much the concerns.”
Petersen’s situation is different than the one facing his Republican colleagues in the House. He announced his plans to co-sponsor the gay marriage bill back in February, so everyone knew where he stood on the issue, and they knew it early. He also doesn’t have to face re-election until 2016.
“I think I dealt with the brunt of that months ago. At some point people realized that it’s a foregone conclusion, that this is what [I] was going to do,” said Petersen, of Andover. “I think people need to get past the August 1 point and see that, hey, my life is not a whole lot different than it was before, and it will fade off from there. But I’m realistic — I knew that I was going to be known for a while as the guy who did that.”
His early support for the bill has made Petersen an explicit target of social conservative political funds, which have vowed to spend big to defeat him in the next election. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has pledged to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat Petersen and any other Republican who supported gay marriage. With definite plans to run for reelection in 2016, Petersen is raising money early for what he believes could become an expensive contest.
“I plan to have a healthy sum by the end of the year,” he said. “It’s hard to dismiss an organization of that size and with those resources.”
GOP activists review their legislators’ vote
Republican activists in Senate District 35 are worried about national money flowing into the district, too, both from NOM and from a newly formed political fund dedicated to helping reelect gay marriage supporters. That fund was set up by Minnesotans United for All Families, the anti-amendment campaign-turned lobbying group that was behind the push to legalize gay marriage. Republicans in Petersen’s district are concerned that he may be benefiting from a group that’s also defending Democrats around the state.
“That PAC is largely supporting Democrats, particularly those in the rural areas, so the feeling is that PAC will inadvertently keep Republicans out of office,” Bendtsen said. “For Branden to join that PAC is an issue.”
Petersen may also have to work for the endorsement from local Republicans. “It’s a volatile little group,” Bendtsen said of the activists, noting they have denied the endorsement to incumbent lawmakers before. “There’s definitely a group that is not supporting him at this point.”
Loon’s Eden Prairie House District 48B rejected the amendment by 40 percent of the vote. And despite her long deliberation over the gay marriage vote, Loon’s decision to vote yes caught activists in her local political unit by surprise.
“I would say [activists] were quite surprised,” Senate District 48 Republican co-chair Steve Smith said. “I know there’s been a lot of support for her from younger people, libertarians and more moderate people who are just sick of this issue, and there are longtime supporters who are really upset about this.”
Smith expects it to be a factor in the endorsement process if Loon opts to run for another term. “It’s for sure going to come up again in that process,” he said. Loon, who is serving her third term in the House, did not return a call seeking comment.
Mark Sobotaa, treasurer with the Senate District 53 Republicans, has witnessed Kieffer being approached by Republican after Republican asking about her gay marriage vote. Kieffer took the most heat, he said, at a recent Tea Party event.
“Some of them were very, very upset with her for her vote,” Sobotaa said. “But for me, listening to her explain her vote, she took into consideration the survey she sent out and then she voted where her conscience guided her. I respect that she took a lot of input in and she voted how she felt.”