Newly emboldened Republican lawmakers in Iowa and New Hampshire have sharpened their focus on blocking gay marriage rights, thrusting a wedge issue into the spotlight just as candidates start wooing voters in the most important states on the presidential primary calendar.
The debate over the divisive social issue has recently neared a boiling point in both states, even before the Obama administration decided to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act. Already there have been packed state house hearings in New Hampshire, Iowa Supreme Court judges ousted and groups threatening oaths for presidential hopefuls.
“It was never a plan to make it into a national issue, but it just seems like the timing is right,” Kevin Smith, executive director of the socially conservative think tank New Hampshire Cornerstone, told Roll Call.
Iowa and New Hampshire are among just five states and the District of Columbia that allow same-sex marriage because of court rulings or votes by their state legislatures. (Maryland appears to be close behind.) And following massive GOP gains in the Iowa and New Hampshire state houses last November, both state legislatures are moving aggressively to curtail same-sex marriage.
In New Hampshire, where the GOP now holds veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, legislative leaders recently decided to postpone action until next January on a high-profile bill to repeal same-sex marriage rights. The debate, which clogged hearing rooms and dominated Granite State headlines earlier in the month, is now scheduled to re-emerge at roughly the same time as the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Cornerstone will ask each Republican presidential candidate to sign a pledge agreeing marriage should be between one man and one woman.
“Why not try to leverage the influence of the candidates to get them to declare their support for traditional marriage?” Smith said. “If you have a candidate saying they’re not willing to oppose same-sex marriage, I think they’ll have a problem. ... We have a wide membership list. We’ll certainly let them know.”
Bob Vander Plaats, who leads Iowa’s Family Leader, largely agrees marriage is a “hot topic.”
“I think there is real momentum,” he said of the push to fight gay marriage. His group, the Iowa equivalent of Cornerstone, is already hosting 2012 candidates for a speaker series, and marriage is suddenly back on the radar.
“I support the notion that we, as a society, should continue to elevate traditional marriage, that it should remain as between a man and a woman, and that all other domestic relationships are not the same as traditional marriage,” Republican Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, said when addressing the audience at the Family Leader series this month.
It’s a marked shift from the 2010 election cycle, which largely ignored social issues. The timing in some ways feels more like 2004, when national Republican operatives made sure key swing states had marriage initiatives on the ballot to drive turnout among socially conservative voters, helping the GOP and then-President George W. Bush.
In 2012, gay marriage “will truly energize a segment of the conservative base,” predicted Republican Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is considering a repeat White House bid.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.