In 2004, South Dakota shocked the nation by defeating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. His Republican opponent, John Thune, won in large part because he scared voters about “homosexual marriage” and campaigned on “traditional family values.” But this year, South Dakotans will vote on a constitutional amendment against marriage equality and domestic partnerships – and the latest poll shows it down 46-47. It’s a stunning reversal from two years ago, when 13 states passed anti-gay marriage amendments with an average passage rate of 71%.
This year, eight states will vote on similar amendments, but a good number are too close to call. As George Bush tries to rally evangelical voters against the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision
, it’s increasingly likely that this strategy will not work. Marriage equality advocates have become better at framing their message, as well as building a stronger grass-roots infrastructure. And as the War in Iraq continues, voters have more important priorities.
“One of the lessons that we learned from 2004 is to start early,” said Jon Hoadley, campaign manager for South Dakotans Against Discrimination
, the official campaign against South Dakota's Amendment C. “We have done extensive outreach to grass-roots leaders in the community – not just elected officials -- and helped explain to them the consequences of this initiative. We have developed a close relationship with anti-domestic violence activists, labor unions, and religious communities that did not exist before. By the time the campaign got into full gear, we were able to kick things off right away.”
Another factor this year is that the constitutional amendments go much further than simply ban same-sex marriage. South Dakota’s Amendment C, for example, would prevent civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any “quasi-marital relationship”– which has convinced many swing voters that straight, unmarried couples could lose important benefits as well. Virginia’s amendment is so broad that, if it passes, it will call into question whether courts could legally recognize some wills, trusts and advance medical directives. Arizona’s amendment would likewise affect all unmarried partners – and the “no” campaign has effectively argued that it was no accident. “The backers of this amendment,” they wrote, “have long voiced the opinion that people should not live together outside the bonds of marriage and, in fact, actively opposed modernizing old Arizona laws that made cohabitation a crime.”
But that’s nothing new. Many of the initiatives that passed two years ago likewise extended beyond same-sex marriage, but voters still approved them anyway. The difference, however, is that now we have seen the true effect of such initiatives and the results aren’t pretty. After Ohio passed an amendment in 2004, eight appellate courts concluded that the state’s domestic violence laws do not protect unmarried women who live with their boyfriends. “When I worked to defeat the Michigan amendment,” said Hoadley, “people didn’t believe us when we warned them about this possibility. Now the Ohio ruling has proven that no relationship outside of marriage will be recognized. It’s an effective message in South Dakota, where over 6000 women report being victims of domestic violence every year.”
In Wisconsin, a recent poll showed their amendment only ahead 50-44. Like South Dakota, Arizona and Virginia, the initiative would also prevent any "legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals." But the latest poll also showed another trend – most voters don’t care about gay marriage. Only 6% of the respondents cited same-sex marriage as their “greatest concern,” whereas 18% said the economy, 15% said health care, 11% said taxes, 11% said education, and 10% said the War in Iraq. Wisconsin is also the only state this year with an anti-gay marriage amendment that voted for John Kerry over George Bush.
It’s that trend that some marriage equality supporters are hoping to defeat the initiatives with. In Colorado, the “No on 43” campaign shot a TV commercial
with a George Bush impersonator answering every question about Iraq, gas prices and health care with the need to “protect marriage.” They probably couldn’t get away with this two years ago when Bush won the state, but now that the President has a 39% approval rating in Colorado
, it might just work.
Colorado is in a unique situation compared with other states. While marriage equality advocates hope to defeat Amendment 43, they are also working to pass a separate ballot measure to create domestic partnerships for gay couples. While Amendment 43 is currently ahead 51-43, the initiative to grant domestic partnerships is winning by 47-42. Last-minute revelations that Ted Haggard, a prominent evangelical minister and activist for the “Yes on 43” campaign, has resigned amid charges of an alleged affair with a male prostitute
will probably depress right-wing turnout in Colorado.
In Virginia, the Washington Post did a poll showing their initiative ahead by ten points. But when respondents were explained both the “pro” and “con” positions, support slipped to 48 percent. Democratic Governor Tim Kaine initially supported the measure, but has now come out against it because it infringes upon private agreements between unmarried couples. Republican Senator George Allen has used the initiative to help him get support from the black community – as he campaigned this week in three African-American churches. But with Allen’s well-documented race problems
, it’s not likely to get him very far in his re-election.
In Tennessee, Democrats like Harold Ford support the anti-gay marriage initiative. But unlike most states where a constitutional amendment needs a simple majority to pass, Tennessee law requires it to get a majority of people who vote in the Governor’s race. If someone votes in the Governor’s race but abstains on the Marriage Amendment, it counts as a “no” vote. Evangelical conservatives have found it difficult to motivate their voters to even pay attention to this amendment – so there’s a slight chance that it could fail.
Back in South Dakota, significant donors have stepped up in the last 24 hours to help the “No on C” campaign, and they are expanding their advertisements to second-tier markets throughout the state. “But we are still thousands of dollars short to get our message out in key areas,” said Hoadley. Unlike in other parts of the country, a $100 campaign contribution can buy two 60-second radio spots in South Dakota. Concerned supporters of marriage equality can make an online donation
at the campaign website.
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