Gay marriage: How Supreme Court bombshell could affect midterm elections

Supreme Court declines to hear same-sex marriage cases, a big move that changes the complexion of American politics on a divisive social issue. If a candidate is out of step with his or her state, it could sway critical votes.

John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to members of the media at the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wis. following United States Supreme Court rejection of appeals by Wisconsin and four other states seeking to prohibit same-sex marriages.

Suddenly, gay marriage is legal in five more states – Wisconsin, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Indiana – after the Supreme Court declined Monday to hear appeals from those states. With a month to go before Election Day, the inevitable question arises: How might the high court’s bombshell affect tight midterm races?

Let’s start with those five states. None have close Senate races – unless Virginia’s GOP nominee, former national party chair Ed Gillespie, suddenly gains traction against Sen. Mark Warner (D).  And in any event, it may be risky for Mr. Gillespie to start pressing his opposition on same-sex marriage, as polls show a slim majority of Virginians accept it.  Furthermore, Gillespie is not a firebrand on the issue.

The other close, major race among those five states is Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) faces a spirited challenge from former Trek bicycle executive Mary Burke (D).  In July, Governor Walker appealed the federal court ruling that struck down the gay-marriage ban in his state’s constitution. But on Monday, he backed down.   

“He didn’t directly answer a question Monday about whether he thought Wisconsin was better off with legalized gay marriage,” the Associated Press reported. “But he says the state will honor same-sex marriages as required by the court ruling.”

Wisconsin is a Democratic-leaning state with majority support for same-sex marriage, and Walker is likely to keep avoiding the question through Election Day on Nov. 4.

A recent AP analysis puts Republican politicians into three groups: a small cohort accepting same-sex marriage, those in middle who wish the issue would go away, and conservatives (think Ted Cruz) who are standing up for traditional marriage.

In addition, for most voters, gay marriage is not the driving issue of the midterms, and so Monday’s earthquake in the Supreme Court is not likely to have a direct impact on close races. But it changes the complexion of American politics on a divisive social issue, and if a candidate is out of step with the culture of his or her state, it could sway critical votes in a close race.

The other wrinkle in Monday’s surprise decision by the Supreme Court is that it paves the way for same-sex marriage in six more states – North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming. Those states all fall under the jurisdiction of the federal circuit courts whose pro-gay-marriage rulings now stand as law.

The six states feature a handful of close races, but few if any are expected to turn on gay marriage. In North Carolina, a Republican-leaning purple state with strongly held views on both sides of the issue, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is locked in a close reelection battle with the speaker of the state House, Thom Tillis (R).

Speaker Tillis opposes gay marriage, but in 2012, when North Carolina voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage, he predicted it would be repealed in 20 years. Senator Hagan also plays it cautious on marriage. In voicing her support for gay marriage rights earlier this year, she noted that she “respects differences religious institutions have.”

Colorado is another purple state featuring a close Senate race, between Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R), though it is more libertarian than North Carolina. Project Vote Smart reports Congressman Gardner’s position on marriage as “unknown” – a sign that he belongs in the uncomfortable middle among Republicans. On another hot-button issue, whether to assign “personhood” rights to a fetus, Gardner backed away from his support, another sign he doesn’t want social policy at the center of his campaign. Senator Udall supports gay marriage.

Solid-red Kansas features close races for both senator and governor, but for different reasons, and gay marriage legalization is unlikely to change the calculus in either race. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) is in trouble for losing touch with his home state. His only major challenger, wealthy businessman and political independent Greg Orman, is liberal on social issues, but that’s not driving the race.

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) faces a tough challenge from state House minority leader Paul Davis (D), but the issues there are the governor’s hard-line style and fiscal policy. Governor Brownback is a social conservative of longstanding, in keeping with his state’s values, but many state Republicans have abandoned Brownback over steep tax cuts and reduced state funds for education.

In February, Representative Davis faced criticism from gay rights groups for his “tepid” opposition to a bill that would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.  But in Kansas, that was the safe position.

Support for gay marriage in Kansas is growing, though more Kansans still oppose it (48 percent) than support it (44 percent).

Even states not involved in Monday’s Supreme Court move could see an impact in close political races. Take Florida, the biggest political battleground in the country, where Gov. Rick Scott (R) is fighting for reelection against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D).

The two men are on opposite sides of the issue, but in a state with a large gay community – and areas eager to get in on the booming business of gay weddings (think Key West) – Governor Scott isn’t putting up much of a fight against Crist’s avid support.

Multiple judges in Florida have ruled against the state’s ban on gay marriage; cases are pending in state and federal court. In September, state Attorney General Pam Bondi opted not to appeal one such ruling.

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