A Referendum on Gay Marriage in an Iowa Special Election?

It's a recipe worthy of Giada de Laurentiis: Combine a swing district, a hot-button issue and a ton of outside money and you're ...
by | August 31, 2009

It's a recipe worthy of Giada de Laurentiis: Combine a swing district, a hot-button issue and a ton of outside money and you're almost guaranteed to end up with a treat of an election.

That's what we'll get tomorrow, as voters elect a new representative to serve in the 90th District in the Iowa House of Representatives.

The Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling legalizing gay marriage in April. Even before that, Republicans were pushing for a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. After the ruling, they redoubled their efforts, but were rebuffed by Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, as well as the Democratic-controlled legislature.

So, how is gay marriage playing with the people of Iowa? We'll get a hint in the 90th District.

The District, in Southeastern Iowa, includes all of Van Buren County and parts of Jefferson County and Wapello County. It opened up when the incumbent Democrat left for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Des Moines Register has more on this swing district:

The district has 7,189 registered Democrats and 6,419 Republicans, according to August state voter registration totals. But the biggest group in the district comprises those who consider themselves independent or members of a third party, accounting for 8,022 registered voters.

That mix of 33 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 37 percent independents or other parties compares closely with statewide voter totals: 34 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans and 37 percent independents and others.

Despite Democrats' slight advantage over Republicans in voter registration, the district tends to lean more conservative and, for that reason, the race is a tossup, members of both parties said.

For just one seat in the 100-member Iowa House of Representatives, the race between Democrat Curt Hanson and Republican Stephen Burgmeier has been exceptionally costly. A group that opposes gay marriage has been part of the heavy spending, as the Associated Press reports:

The National Organization for Marriage has launched the Reclaim Iowa Project, targeting legislative races in the state in an effort to elect candidates who support putting the issue of gay marriage before voters.


The group's effort is beginning with a Sept. 1 special election in southeastern Iowa's House District 90, where Republican Stephen Burgmeier is running against Democrat Curt Hanson for the seat vacated when Democratic Rep. John Whitaker resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The organization has endorsed Burgmeier and spent $90,000 on television and radio ads supporting him, Brown said.

Recently, debates over gay marriage have turned into debates over out-of-state money. That was the case with Prop. 8 in California, when Mormons from Utah spent heavily to pass the measure. This year, spending by NOM and other outside groups on both sides of the issue have raised eyebrows in Maine, which will vote on gay marriage in the fall.

NOM's view seems to be that money is money and that their spending can persuade voters even if they get a bit of negative press for being an outside group. The election in the 90th District certainly won't conclusively tell us whether that view is correct -- and it won't conclusively tell us what Iowans think about gay marriage -- but, as the only legislative election scheduled in Iowa this year, it's the best clue we'll get for now.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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