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Gay Marriage Debate Takes Back Seat to Economy

Bill Clark/Roll Call
With Americans increasingly supporting same-sex marriage, the issue has waned as a political wedge in recent election cycles. Washington, D.C., is one of several governments that allow gay marriage, which is why Jonathan Howard (left) and Gregory Jones could celebrate their wedding at the D.C. Superior Court in March 2010.

As a Senator, George Allen (R) co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and worked a pledge to keep marriage "traditional" into just about every re-election stump speech.

But these days, as Allen tries to get his job back, he doesn't talk about gay marriage. A top campaign aide said the Senator keeps social issues on the back burner and instead talks with Virginians about the issues they raise: gas prices, jobs and the economy, and the need to rein in federal government spending.

Gay marriage just isn't the wedge issue it used to be in the swing state of Virginia, or the rest of the country, for that matter.

"The potency of that issue is going to be dramatically reduced, even from what it was two, four, six years ago," said Chris Barron, co-founder of the conservative gay rights group GOProud.

Recent polls show the majority of Americans now support legal same-sex marriage. And as the languishing economy continues to inform voter sentiment, conservative strategists say the time when gay issues were politically powerful has passed.

The tea party, which wields influence in GOP primaries, tends to eschew engaging on issues such as gay marriage altogether.

"We do not touch social issues in the tea party movement," said Jason Hoyt, a Florida tea party activist based in Orlando. "Those that fully understand the tea party movement understand that it was born on fiscal issues."

Barron said in the 2010 midterm elections, "Republicans were swept into office on a wave that completely ignored same-sex marriage, that completely ignored gay issues."

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean agreed gay marriage would "take a back seat to jobs and economy during the next election," largely because it's not an issue that affects most voters' everyday lives.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, thinks there's more to it than just economic woes.

"Voter sentiment has changed," he said. "Right now, no one can seriously, credibly argue, in court or in state legislatures, that same-sex marriage is an imposition on an unwilling public."

A May Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans favored legal gay marriage for the first time. Fifty-three percent said they thought marriages between same-sex couples should "be recognized by the law as valid." Sixty-nine percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents supported gay marriage, double-digit leaps from a year ago. However, the number of Republicans who support gay marriage, 29 percent, remains unchanged from last year.

In Virginia, even though just five years ago a strong majority of voters supported a state constitutional amendment to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions, a May Washington Post poll shows a plurality, 47 percent, now supports gay marriage.

Forty-three percent are against it. It's a marked shift from 2004, when George W. Bush's Republican Party successfully placed several anti-gay-marriage measures onto battleground state ballots to boost Bush's re-election prospects. That year, Allen was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and advocated frequently that marriage "should be reserved for a man and a woman."

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, charged that gay marriage would no longer "pay the sort of dividends" that Republicans notched in 2004.

"You just seem so horribly out of touch when the message is improve the economy and get people jobs and you're talking about whether the two guys down the street — who are struggling like the rest of us — are able to get married or not," he said.

Demographic changes have been a factor, as well, because young people overwhelmingly support gay marriage.

Seventy percent of 18- to 34-year-olds supported legal same-sex marriage in the Gallup poll.

"We have a number of indicators on gay and lesbian relations, and young people generally tend to be more liberal in their orientation than those who are older," said Frank Newport, Gallup poll's editor-in-chief.

The College Republican National Committee hasn't taken a stand on any social issues since 2009.

CRNC spokesman Rob Lockwood said the group focuses "solely on economic issues and jobs," in part because the different college chapters have varying views on social issues.

The focus is on "the one issue we are all united on and that is: Excessive government spending has not worked," Lockwood said.

Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf, who is gay, thinks it's only a matter of time before gays and lesbians can legally marry anywhere.

As for the issue's political future, Elmendorf said: "Whether the Republicans get there, dragged, kicking and screaming, or whether they join the parade, I don't know."

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