There are eight states this year on which there is a ballot measure concerning gay marriage. They are: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. When I expressed my earlier view that gay marriage would not be a determinative issue, only Tennessee had a competitive Senate race. Since that time, the race in Virginia between Sen. George Allen (R) and Jim Webb (D) has become highly competitive, and Sen. Jon Kyl's (R) lead in Arizona, although still strongly favored, has shrunk considerably. In New Jersey, which will feel the direct impact of today's ruling, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) is locked in a tight race with Tom Kean, Jr. (R). Two months ago, there were just six competitive House races in those eight states. Today, according to Realclearpolitics.com, that number has grown to eight when you add another race in Arizona to the earlier list and a race in New Jersey. Democrats need to gain six Senate seats to win back the Senate and 15 seats to win back the House.
Two months ago, the importance of gay marriage, in terms of being a threat as it is perceived by the religious right, was ebbing as a political issue after high courts in two liberal states, New York and Washington, successively rejected gay marriage rights. At the same time, voter concerns weighed more heavily on the Iraq War and concern about rising gas prices. While the Iraq War remains a major concern, plummeting gas prices have effectively provided a big tax cut to working class voters going into this November's elections.
Prior to today's ruling, there was a consensus that dissatisfaction with perceived Republican corruption in Congress and, more recently, the Foley page scandal would turn off so-called "value voters" who make up a critical component of the Republican Party's base. In one fell swoop the New Jersey ruling shifts the focus away from the negative stigma of the Foley scandal and back to the values issues which have worked for Republicans in recent elections. Similar rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont were easy to dismiss as an aberration because of their historically liberal inclinations, New Jersey is more like a microcosm of the United States in terms of its cultural, ethnic and racial makeup. It becomes easier for proponents of gay marriage bans to sell their argument that if it happened there, it can happen here. The rallying cry the religious right was missing yesterday to get out their vote is back today.
While gay rights advocates, including myself, celebrate today's victory, the reality is that it may prove to be a short-term setback for gay rights to the extent it proves decisive in helping Republicans extend their majority in Congress, albeit a smaller majority, on the back of this issue. In Indiana, it is less likely to have as much of an impact because there is no ballot initiative. It may, however, elevate the issue in a few key, state legislative races. As for three Democratic challengers in the 2nd, 8th and 9th Districts, they can thank Rep. Pat Bauer (D) for keeping the gay marriage amendment off the ballot in Indiana this year. If it had been on the ballot, it could have proven to be a lifesaver for Rep. Chris Chocola (R), Rep. John Hostettler (R) and Rep. Mike Sodrel (R), each of whom represent rural districts heavily populated with the so-called values voters.
UPDATE: My point in this post is confirmed by a statement Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., (D), who is locked in a tight Senate race against Bob Corker (R) in Tennessee, put out immediately following the New Jersey ruling. He said:
I do not support the decision today reached by the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I oppose gay marriage, and have voted twice in Congress to amend the United States Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. This November there's a referendum on the Tennessee ballot to ban same-sex marriage - I am voting for it.
Ford was on FOX News this morning complaining that Republicans were misrepresenting his position on gay marriage. He wanted to make it abundantly clear he opposes it. Ford stirred controversy earlier in the campaign when he used a TV commercial showing him inside a church in a deliberate appeal to win "values" voters.