The political fallout from Wednesday's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in favor of full rights for gay couples could ripple far beyond the borders of the Garden State.
With control of the House and Senate at stake in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, Republican leaders are hoping the ruling will give their wavering conservative base – who would see the court's move as another attack on traditional marriage – a reason to go to the polls.
The New Jersey outcome could suddenly give impetus to voters in eight states where the ballot includes measures to ban gay marriage. In some of these states – Tennessee and Virginia, especially – the races for Senate seats are too close to call. Others, namely Arizona and Colorado, have hotly contested House races that may give a boost to Republican candidates.
The ruling, which found that gay couples in New Jersey are entitled to the same legal and financial protections as heterosexual couples, could tip the national balance, many political analysts say.
"The Republicans are thrilled and the Democrats are furious with those judges, and that tells me all I need to know," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "Both sides understand this is a boost for Republican turnout among social conservatives, many of whom were very discouraged and probably were not going to vote because of the [Mark] Foley scandal and Iraq."
Some analysts, though, disagree. Gay marriage has lost some of its salience as a galvanizing issue, they say, in part because Americans are so focused on the war in Iraq.
"The country seems very, very centered on Iraq, and ... it's very unlikely that something that happened in New Jersey is going to energize social conservatives," says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Every poll I've looked at suggests that Iraq remains the defining issue."
In backing full rights for gay couples, New Jersey's high court gave the state Legislature 180 days to expand existing laws or to adopt new ones that will guarantee gay couples equal rights. But it stopped short of requiring use of the word "marriage" to define gay-couple unions, leaving that decision to the Legislature. Some analysts suggest that makes the issue less compelling for conservatives, for now.
"I'm sure the extreme right would very much have preferred the court have said we get marriage," says David Buckel, senior counsel for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who argued the case for gay marriage before the New Jersey court. "That is one of the ironies of where we are now politically. The court did not take the constitutional promise the entire way. And since we're in abeyance now and have to wait for the Legislature to act, it's hard to see what kind of impact it will have outside of New Jersey, at least on elections."
Eight thousand gay couples have been married in Massachusetts, and civil unions are commonplace in Vermont and Connecticut – developments that Mr. Buckel says may have made some Americans feel less threatened by the issue. "Not one volcano popped its lid, the weather patterns did not dramatically alter," says Buckel. "I think America sees that in the end, whatever anxieties there were, a few families were helped immensely by getting things like medical coverage and no families were hurt."
Opponents of gay marriage say the ruling will put the issue back on the front pages – and energize the most conservative voters. "New Jersey is a key state, and the papers are covering this, word is spreading," says the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition in Washington. "This raises a level of awareness. It takes away the negatives from the Foley scandal and the war, and reminds people that the family is an important issue."
Mr. Sheldon, whose public-policy think tank is supported by 43,000 churches, is urging voters to find out where their candidate stands on the gay-marriage issue and to vote. "This underscores the urgency for Congress to act on a constitutional amendment that truly defines marriage as between one man and one woman and doesn't give away the rights and privileges through civil unions and domestic partners," he says.
To date, polls show Democratic voters have been more energized than Republicans this election cycle – a reversal from the past few elections when Republicans were gung-ho and Democrats lackluster.
"Republicans haven't dropped off the map, but their interest in voting is lower than it usually is," says Thomas Patterson, a political analyst at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "This is the kind of issue that can give them a reason to vote, and they haven't had many. This might be enough to get them to think, 'Ah, I'll get out of my chair,' at least for those on the margins."
In New Jersey, where Republicans see their best hope of taking a Democratic Senate seat, the ruling is not expected to affect the close race between incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez (D) and Tom Kean Jr. (R) – in part because a majority of voters there favor gay marriage.