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Whatever happened to the gay-marriage backlash?

A year after Minnesota lawmakers were issued dire warnings about the political consequences of approving gay marriage, legislators are finding that voters have largely moved on. 

Capitol rally attendees celebrate in the rotunda following the passage of same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Senate.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Democratic Rep. Joe Radinovich was marching in the city of Aitkin’s famed Fish House Parade last November when he saw his Republican opponent’s truck roll past. Painted on the side of the vehicle: “Marriage = one man + one woman.”

Radinovich wasn’t terribly surprised. In May 2013, he had become the poster-child for tough calls when he voted to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. That vote came despite the fact that, just seven months earlier, more than 60 percent of voters in his rural district cast ballots in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Republicans in the area tried to recall Radinovich from office over his vote, but the effort was struck down by the state Supreme Court.

Now, with primary season in full swing, incumbents like Radinovich — legislators who either bucked the views of the majority of their constituents or their own party to make Minnesota the 12th state to legalize gay marriage — are preparing to face voters for the first time since they cast their ballot on the issue.

Yet something unexpected has happened in the year since the issue became one of the state’s most high-profile and hotly debated topics: Outside of a handful of districts across the state, gay marriage has quietly faded into the background this campaign season. Statewide GOP candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate are talking about the economy, not social issues. Even DFL incumbents in rural districts say the issue doesn’t come up as much as they thought it would.

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“I don’t think the issue is totally dead, but people have seen the sky isn’t falling,” said DFL Rep. Tim Faust, whose Hinckley-area district, like Radinovich’s, voted in favor of the ban while he voted in favor of legalization. “Massive amounts of people have not gotten divorced; it hasn’t been the disaster that was predicted by the other side. Things are changing across the country. With the courts overturning bans and Wisconsin next door legalizing gay marriage, people don’t look at the issue anymore and say, ‘I blame Tim Faust for this.’”

All quiet on the rural front

In all, 15 incumbent DFL House members voted in favor of gay marriage even though their districts voted for the ban. Radinovich is one of them, and he is facing an uphill battle for re-election. He secured his victory two years ago by only 323 votes, and House District 10B, which covers parts of Aitkin and Crow Wing counties in the north central part of the state, is dotted with small towns. In 2012, 54 percent of voters in his district favored Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama.

Rep. Joe Radinovich
Rep. Joe Radinovich

But over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Radinovich knocked on more than 150 doors  throughout his district. Just two people brought up his vote on gay marriage. “It’s come up a few times in my town halls, but I’ve found when I have an opportunity to speak to people about it, people may not agree with me, but they take me at my word that it’s something I thought about seriously and I did what I thought was right,” he said.

His Republican opponent Dale Lueck has also been knocking on doors. And he says he’s heard about gay marriage plenty, particularly from church-going voters over the age of 55. “I’ve seen people shaking fists and pointing figures and getting mad at the doorstep,” he said. “It happens as soon as they hear his name.”

Another DFL Representative, Roger Erickson, is just finishing his first term representing a district that covers the Northwest Angle, the northernmost part of Minnesota, and so far he’s also heard little about gay marriage on the campaign trail, despite the fact that his district supported the ban by 60 percent. There have been no ads pointing out his vote, and his opponent hasn’t made it a focus of the campaign. 

I’m not going to bring it up, I know that,” Erickson said. “Everybody knows my vote. It’s out there. I look across the country and constitutional laws are being taken down one after another. I expect more of that to happen and it’s just kind of a sign of the times, and people know that.”

GOP faces internal battles

Not surprisingly, the legislators facing the most contentious fights over the issue tend to be Republicans who voted in favor of legalization. Sen. Branden Petersen, who co-sponsored the gay marriage bill in the upper chamber, faced immediate backlash from his district and from national conservative groups. The National Organization for Marriage, a group that supports traditional marriage policies and politicians across the country, immediately promised to spend $500,000 against Petersen and any other Republican who voted in favor of legalization. As a senator, though, Petersen won’t be on the ballot until 2016. 

GOP Rep. Jenifer Loon is facing a primary challenger in her Eden Prairie district after she failed to win her local party’s endorsement this spring. Her opponent, Republican activist Sheila Kihne, argues that Loon isn’t conservative enough for her suburban district, despite the fact that only 40 percent of voters in the district favored the gay marriage ban in 2012. 

Rep. David FitzSimmons
Rep. David FitzSimmons

Republican Rep. David FitzSimmons, whose Wright County district is one of the most conservative in the state, became an unlikely player in the gay marriage debate in the last year when he offered a successful amendment to add the word “civil” in front of marriage. He then voted for the bill. As a result, he quickly earned himself a challenger, Dayton City Council member Eric Lucero, who hasn’t been coy about the fact that he was running because of his opposition to gay marriage.  “The family unit is the foundation of society and MUST be protected,” Lucero says on his website.

FitzSimmons opted to step down and retire rather than face Lucero in an endorsing or primary contest. “The biggest thing I have yet to see is what is the intent of candidates that are focusing in on this as an issue,” FitzSimmons said. “What do they want to about it or what are they proposing to change? What are people’s motivations? Is it that they want to see something different happen or is it seen as some kind of a punishment?”

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Overall, however, most Republican candidates around Minnesota are focusing their message on the economy and the state’s troubled health insurance exchange this cycle, having lost control of both chambers of the Legislature the year the marriage amendment was on the ballot. “Do individual legislators’ votes always play a factor in an incumbents’ race? Of course they do, but we are going to be talking about those other issues that are facing Minnesotans at their kitchen table,” Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey said. 

Galvanizing the base

Even if many voters are no longer passionate about it, the issue of gay marriage is still reshaping the state’s politics. What initially started as  an effort to alter the state’s Constitution to ban gay marriage turned into the largest grassroots campaign in the state’s history — for the other side. The anti-amendment campaign, Minnesotans United for all Families, was formed shortly after the 2011 vote in the Legislature that put the question on the ballot. The group rallied tends of thousands volunteers and raised more than $11 million dollars, and their efforts managed to help bring out metro-area voters in droves to cast ballots against the amendment, making Minnesota the first of 30 states to reject such a ban.

Monica Meyer
Monica Meyer

“If you look at how high the voter turnout was and the fact that people voted just on the amendment and skipped — in some cases — even the presidential race, it was just amazing,” said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, a pro-LGBT political advocacy organization. 

Two years after defeating the amendment, Democrats want to tap into that organizing force to help drag voters to the polls in a non-presidential election year, a time when many tend to stay home. Meyer is working on a get out the vote strategy that taps into the work Minnesotans United did in 2012 — visiting college campuses across the state, canvasing and knocking on doors.

After the Legislature voted to legalize marriage, Minnesotans United quickly formed a political action committee to defend the pro-gay marriage legislators — 15 targeted in all — who could be vulnerable because of their vote. The group has directed campaign donations from around the nation directly into the coffers of candidates like Radinovich, while raising their own money for get out of the vote efforts. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton also raised money at Minnesotans United’s recent Third Annual Pride reception.

As of the last campaign finance reporting period, the group had raised about $71,000. The largest sum of money came from Tim Gill, a Colorado-Based computer software entrepreneur who has been deeply involved in the issue in Minnesota. Most of their money so far has been spent on consulting and acquiring voter databases.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin

There’s still fear that gay marriage supporters will stay home now that the battle has been won. But DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Republican control of the House or the governor’s office could lead to future tweaks in the gay marriage law to add more religious exceptions. 

“There will be a significant push to make sure that supporters of marriage equality show up to the polls. It could be an issue in a couple of seats in greater Minnesota, but even there we’ve seen this issue has evolved so rapidly over the last six months,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “People realized the day after it became legal that the state is no different than the day before. It didn’t impact their lives at all.”