Implicit Referendums on Gay Marriage

For the first time in years, no state will vote on gay marriage this year. But, there are still a few elections around the country that will tell us how voters feel on the issue.
by | September 2, 2010

This year, we have a truce in one front of the culture wars. Unless I'm mistaken, for the first time since 1996 no state will be voting on gay marriage in an even-numbered year.

In fact, so far as I can tell we won't have any gay rights issues on the ballot. No civil unions, no gay adoption bans, no nothing.

The reason for the lack of action isn't really that passions about gay rights issues are much less than they were a few years ago. Instead, most states simply are happy with the decisions they've already made. Most conservative states have banned gay marriage in their constitutions. A few more liberal states have legalized gay marriage. New state action is likely only to happen incrementally, as views on the subject change or political power in state capitals shifts.

All of that is good news for anyone with disdain for the culture wars. But, it's bad news for anyone trying to figure out how the American people feel about gay marriage. Polling on gay marriage is inconsistent, with at least one survey showing a majority supports same-sex nuptials, while others still show a broad majority opposed. The votes on gay marriage have been a convenient way to keep tabs on the true state of public opinion, but now we don't have any votes.

At least, we don't have any votes explicitly on gay marriage. There are a few elections going on around the country this year that are substantially about gay marriage and that, therefore, can be seen as a crude guide as to the state of public opinion. They include:

-Iowa Supreme Court races. David Baker, Michael Streit and Marsha Ternus, three judges that joined in the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision legalizing gay marriage, are up on retention votes. They've been targeted by social conservatives, including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats. In these races, gay marriage really is the only issue (well, perhaps along with the politicization of the judicial system).

-New York State Senate Democratic Primaries, 32nd District and 33rd District. Even though eight states hold primaries on September 14, with several nominations for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House up for grabs, you'd be hard-pressed to find more consequential elections that these two New York Senate primaries. The Bronx-based 32nd and 33rd districts are represented by Ruben Diaz Sr. and Pedro Espada, respectively. Both are opponents of gay marriage whose "no" votes contributed to the surprisingly lopsided rejection of the idea by the New York Senate last year. Both face challenges by fellow Democrats who favor gay marriage. As a result, both races have centered heavily, though not exclusively, on gay marriage.

Not exclusively because Diaz and Espada were both members of the "Gang of Four" -- the four Democrats who threatened to rebel against the Senate's leadership after the 2008 elections. Then, Espada was one of the instigators of the leadership crisis last year that threatened to put the Republicans back in charge of the body. I've detected a fair amount of optimism from New York Democrats that they will be able to retain the State Senate despite the national political climate, but, even if they do, the results of these primaries could help determine whether the party has a functional majority or just a nominal one.

Still, to a remarkable extent these races seem to have focused not on those issues, but on gay marriage. As such, they're a good test of how urban minorities feel about the topic.

-California Lieutenant Governor. Ever since he authorized his city to start allowing gay marriage in 2004 -- upending the presidential election in the process -- Gavin Newsom has been, for better or for worse, the face of the gay marriage movement in California. Opponents of gay marriage used Newsom's words heavily (and seemingly effectively) in their campaign to pass Prop. 8 in 2008. While there are plenty of other things for Newsom and Republican nominee Abel Maldonado to talk about, their contest will be the closest thing we get to a referendum on gay marriage in California this year.

There are lots of other contests that have implications for the future of gay marriage. The race for governor in Minnesota (if Democrat Mark Dayton wins, the state may legalize gay marriage) and the campaign for control of the Indiana House (if Republicans take control, they'll likely try to forbid it in the state constitution) come to mind. But, in those races gay marriage will be, at most, a secondary issue. The places where gay marriage is a primary issue are Iowa, New York and California.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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