Department of unconvincing spin

This article by Jason Clayworth in Thursday's Des Moines Register was good for a few laughs:

A group opposed to same-sex marriages failed to secure victory for Republicans in Iowa this week, but the massive injection of out-of-state money on the issue foreshadows what's to come in next year's elections, political scholars said Wednesday.

Despite the loss, the National Organization for Marriage succeeded in making gay marriage an issue, the head of the group said Wednesday. He vowed that its "Reclaim Iowa Project" will remain active in the 2010 state elections.

I'm sure "making gay marriage an issue" was just the kind of success the NOM's generous donors (whoever they are) were looking for. Why, Iowans in House district 90 might never have realized same-sex couples could marry if not for the NOM's major ad campaign.

Back to that Register article:

Jeff Boeyink, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, said many no-party voters Tuesday supported [Stephen] Burgmeier. That was a victory itself, he said.

Voters want the opportunity to vote on the gay marriage issue, he said.

"We moved the needle a lot," Boeyink said. "We didn't get the victory, but we take away some real positives out of this."

Sure, Mr. Boeyink, you "moved the needle a lot." Your candidate, elected three times as a Jefferson County supervisor, lost his own county by more than 600 votes.

The marriage group did not lose the race for Burgmeier, said Chuck Hurley, a former Republican legislator and now president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, a group against gay marriage. He said the issue will be a major topic in the 2010 elections.

"Marriage won the day," Hurley said of the election. "I think it was a huge issue in the campaign."

Yes, Republicans tried to make marriage a huge issue in the campaign while Curt Hanson talked about jobs, economic development and renewable energy. The National Organization for Marriage's television ad used the same kind of rhetoric as the Iowa Family Policy Center's "Let Us Vote" campaign: instead of advocating discrimination against same-sex couples, the ads supported Burgmeier as someone who would "let voters have a say." Well, voters in House district 90 had their say.

I don't want to get too cocky. Tuesday's election could have gone the other way if not for the outstanding GOTV effort by organizers supporting Hanson. But the fact is, a special election a few months after the Iowa Supreme Court ruling went into effect is exactly the kind of race likely to be disproportionately influenced by same-sex marriage. The experience of Vermont and Massachusetts shows that any electoral backlash against supporters of marriage equality was short-lived. If the Iowa Family Policy Center (which designated a staffer to work on Burgmeier's campaign) and nearly $90,000 worth of NOM tv ads couldn't leverage this issue into a victory on Tuesday, I don't think Republicans will get far running against gay marriage 14 months from now.

For a more honest Republican assessment of Tuesday's special election results, read this post by Craig Robinson at The Iowa Republican blog.

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Gay marriage will be issue in Iowa House special election

Iowans in House district 90 will elect a new state representative in a special election on September 1, and the Republican candidate appears to be planning to make same-sex marriage a major campaign issue.

The seat opened up when State Representative John Whitaker, a Democrat, accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Republicans didn't even run a candidate against Whitaker in 2008, but Iowa House district 90 has been competitive in the recent past. The southeastern Iowa district contains all of Van Buren County and parts of Wapello and Jefferson counties, including the Fairfield area (home to Maharishi University and the so-called "Silicorn Valley").

The Democratic candidate for the special election is Curt Hanson, a retired driver's education teacher who has won various teaching awards. Hanson plans to campaign on bread-and-butter issues: jobs, health care, education, and balancing the budget.

The Republican candidate is Jefferson County supervisor Steve Burgmeier. His name rang a bell for me because the Jefferson County supervisors made a show of posturing against same-sex marriage on April 27, the day the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling went into effect. Burgmeier and his colleagues passed a resolution calling on Iowa legislators to take a stand against same-sex marriage. Since the Iowa Legislature had just adjourned for the year on April 26, the resolution served no purpose other than to put Burgmeier and on record loudly opposing marriage equality. He was probably planning to run for the legislature even before Whitaker's seat opened up; a Republican Bleeding Heartland commenter had been recruiting Burgmeier to run next year in Iowa Senate district 45 (one of the GOP's better pickup opportunities in the upper chamber).

Burgmeier's press release announcing his candidacy for Iowa House district 90 highlighted two issues: cutting government spending and giving Iowans "a right to vote on the definition of marriage." This is the new politically-correct Republican messaging. Instead of acknowledging that they want to write discrimination into the Iowa Constitution, Republicans say, "Iowans deserve the right to vote" on a marriage amendment, as if we were in the habit of subjecting minority rights to a majority vote in this country.

Republicans would like to win this special election for many reasons, not least to fire up their base about the potential to demagogue against committed same-sex Iowa couples next year. Democrats hold a 56-44 majority in the Iowa House. House Speaker Pat Murphy strongly supported the Varnum v Brien ruling and has made clear he will block efforts to bring a marriage amendment to the House floor.

You can donate to Curt Hanson's campaign by clicking here. A strong volunteer effort will be crucial in this low-turnout special election, so if you live within striking distance of southeast Iowa, please consider volunteering for Hanson's campaign before September 1.

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DOJ will meet with gay rights groups about DOMA

Greg Sargent reported today at The Plum Line,

Two prominent gay rights lawyers litigating high-profile cases against the Obama administration tell me that their requests to meet with administration lawyers to discuss the cases were rebuffed [...].

In both cases, the lawyers are representing Federal employees whose spouses are being denied protections or benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act.

Less than two hours after that post, Sargent received encouraging news from the DOJ and posted an update:

The Obama Justice Department has reached out to major gay rights organizations and scheduled a private meeting for next week with the groups, in an apparent effort to smooth over tensions in the wake of the controversy over the administration's defense in court of the Defense of Marriage Act. [...]

At the meeting -- which hasn't been announced and is expected to include leading gay rights groups like GLAD and Lambda Legal -- both sides are expected to hash out how to proceed with pending DOMA cases.

Though there's no guarantee either side will leave next week's meeting happy, it's encouraging to hear that some dialogue is planned.

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New urgency on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell

President Barack Obama's spokesman confirmed in January that the president is committed to ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits gay and lesbian soldiers from being open about their sexual orientation. The official White House website still promises to repeal this policy.

Congressional action is required to change Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and there have been some questions about whether Congress will get a bill on this to Obama's desk during 2009.

The advance of marriage equality in Iowa and Vermont brings new urgency to the matter. The Des Moines Register reports on the front page of Monday's edition,

Gay and lesbian military service members who are legally married in Iowa can still be involuntarily discharged from the Iowa National Guard and other military branches under a federal law that prevents homosexuals from openly serving in the armed forces, military officials say.

The federal law, approved by Congress in 1993, takes precedence over the Iowa Supreme Court ruling in April that legalized same-sex marriage, according to legal experts. The ruling struck down Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act, which had limited marriage to a man and a woman.

The Iowa National Guard is prevented from implementing the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling for its personnel because it is a federally recognized military organization, said Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood Jr., the Iowa National Guard's public affairs officer. [...]

The federal law allows the military to discharge members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts, and those who state they are homosexual or bisexual. The law says that military life is fundamentally different from civilian life. It also says the prohibition against homosexual conduct is a long-standing element of military law that continues to be necessary in the unique circumstances of military service.

The ban on same-sex marriage by National Guard members and other military service personnel also applies in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, the three other states with legalized same-sex marriage, said Emily Hecht, a lawyer for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group dedicated to repealing the federal law. Same-sex marriage will be legal in Vermont as of Sept. 1.

In December I wrote that Barack Obama needs to keep his word on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Some commenters in the thread at MyDD argued that it was prudent for Obama to proceed cautiously on this issue, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton administration in 1993.

Even if Obama doesn't take the advice of former Clinton White House staffer Richard Socarides, who advocated "bold action" on behalf of gay Americans in this Washington Post op-ed, the least the president can do is urge Congress to move quickly on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Public opinion has shifted dramatically since 1993. Multiple national polls have shown large majorities in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Servicemen and servicewomen should not be forced to choose between their jobs and exercising their civil marriage rights.

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Update on marriage equality in Iowa

It's day four for legal same-sex marriage in Iowa, and I still haven't seen any reports of couples being refused a marriage license anywhere in the state. The Des Moines Register reported that about 350 same-sex couples received marriage licenses on Monday, the day the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling in Varnum v Brien went into effect. More than half of those applications were in five large counties: Polk (Des Moines area), Johnson (Iowa City), Linn (Cedar Rapids), Pottawattamie (Council Bluffs) and Scott (Quad Cities area).

According to this map on the Des Moines Register's site, about half of Iowa's 99 counties have issued at least one marriage license to a same-sex couple. No counties have denied marriage licenses yet, but many have yet to receive an application from a same-sex couple.

One Iowa, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the state, is trying to raise $25,000 by the end of April (that's today) in order to collect on a matching gift that will keep their television ad on the air. Click here to watch the ad and donate.

The Des Moines Register's business section featured an article on Thursday about gay-friendly wedding planners. Resources mentioned in the piece include gayweddingswithpanache.com, myiowagaywedding.com, iowasgayweddingplanner.com and iowagayweddingdirectory.com. Beau Fodor of gayweddingswithpanache.com said the most frequent questions he's been asked by out-of-state wedding seekers are whether people can get married on one of the covered bridges of Madison County and whether they will need to hire security for their wedding because of protests from those who oppose gay marriage. There were public protests in various Iowa cities on Monday, but none escalated to violence, and I haven't heard of any protesters standing outside county recorders' offices since then.

I believe that marriage equality has given the social conservatives the upper hand in the struggle for control over the Republican Party of Iowa. However, Republican moderates are not going to give up without a fight. Doug Gross, a Republican power-broker who was the 2002 gubernatorial nominee, is holding a press conference tomorrow to discuss results from a poll he commissioned last month. (A group of Republican insiders got an exclusive briefing on the poll today in Des Moines.) Although Gross is conservative personally, he has been calling on fellow Republicans to drop their litmus-test approach to social issues and focus more on Reaganesque rhetoric about the economy. Gross warned earlier this week that while gay marriage could be a good issue for Iowa Republicans, "if Republicans let this be the only thing they talk about, they won't be successful in 2010."

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that nationally, more Republicans are "rethinking" the party's stance on gay marriage:

The fact that a run of states have legalized gay marriage in recent months -- either by court decision or by legislative action -- with little backlash is only one indication of how public attitudes about this subject appear to be changing.

More significant is evidence in polls of a widening divide on the issue by age, suggesting to many Republicans that the potency of the gay-marriage question is on the decline. It simply does not appear to have the resonance with younger voters that it does with older ones.

Consider this: In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, released on Monday, 31 percent of respondents over the age of 40 said they supported gay marriage. By contrast, 57 percent under age 40 said they supported it, a 26-point difference. Among the older respondents, 35 percent said they opposed any legal recognition of same-sex couples, be it marriage or civil unions. Among the younger crowd, just 19 percent held that view.

I expect this trend to accelerate if marriage equality does not lead to an electoral backlash against Iowa Democrats next year.

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