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Gay Marriage Vote Signals Start of 2006 Campaign Season

June 5, 2006

To listen to the Republican leadership, one would think that Americans are horrified at the prospect of gay marriage coming soon to a court house near them. President George W. Bush devoted his Saturday weekly radio address to support for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. Today, he plans a Rose Garden benediction to kick off Senate debate on the measure, known in its present form as the Marriage Protection Amendment. On Tuesday, he will convene a press conference on the issue. However, when asked in a recent poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates to rank the issues that most concern them, registered voters put gay marriage dead last as a "top priority," behind affordable health care (55%), dealing with Iraq (55%), passing new ethics/lobbying laws (25%), and passing an amendment banning flag burning (20%).  As a priority, only 18 percent of the 802 respondents cited same-sex marriage in the poll, commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign.  And since 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage has declined by 12 percent according to a March poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. It is accepted on both sides that the right wing will not get the two-thirds majority it needs in order to pass the measure. So, why would Republican operatives invest such political capital in a losing cause? Such lifestyle issues as gay marriage and flag burning tend to ensure voter turnout among the Republican Party's right-wing base.  With November’s mid-term congressional and Senate elections approaching, base-rallying catch phrases are quickly making their way to center stage. As the party that typically enjoys more support from men than women, in gay marriage the GOP chooses an issue that cuts to its own advantage among men.  According to a Gallup poll released late last month, a 55-percent majority of women aged 18-49 responded "yes" when asked if "marriages between homosexuals should be legally valid."  In contrast, 67 percent of men in the same age group opposed legal same-sex marriage, with only 31 percent approving marriage rights for gays. Hans Johnson, president of Progressive Victory, a strategy and data firm engaged in efforts to defeat state-level anti-gay referenda, explains the Marriage Protection Amendment as "an attempt to make the 2006 elections a referendum of sorts on the issue,” as in the 2004 election. Even more important, says Johnson, the issue plays to the right's tried-and-true strategy of "wedding state-based campaigning to a federal issue."  More than voter turnout, he explains, it's about filling campaign coffers. Johnson cites former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, who is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, as an example of the “incredibly opportunistic” candidates on the right. Reed, says Johnson, is “calling for—and I kid you not—a special session of the Georgia legislature devoted to attacking same-sex marriage. Why? Because he is trying to gin up the troops and the fundraising apparatus.” These are the same candidates, he says, who oppose virtually all forms of reproductive freedom, including emergency contraception. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is seen as vying for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, drives this week’s expected vote on the amendment. Readers should follow the money—not only direct contributions but tax-free dollars that could be spent on Frist’s behalf by what Johnson calls "nominally non-partisan, non-profit organizations" like Focus on the Family, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the American Family Association. At a recent American Prospect forum, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked how the Democrats intend to counter the GOP's anti-gay strategy. Pelosi suggested that the issue is unlikely to play as well in 2006 as it did in 2004. Many who voted with the Republicans on such hot button issues as gun control, abortions, and gay marriage are “people in rural America who don’t have a decent job, who don’t have access to good health care, aren’t getting a decent education, live in environments that are degraded,” said Pelosi. “They’ve been there, done that. Now they want a job."