NEW YORK – This election will be the first since the 1990s without a measure to ban gay marriage on any state ballot, yet the divisive issue is roiling races across the country during a time of tumult for the gay rights movement.
In Minnesota, New Hampshire, California and New York, gubernatorial campaigns have become battlegrounds for rival sides in the debate, with the Democratic candidates supporting same-sex marriage and the Republicans opposed.
In Iowa, voters will decide whether to oust three state Supreme Court justices who joined last year's unanimous decision making the state one of five where gay marriage is legal.
And in Rhode Island and California, Democratic candidates are seeking to become the fourth and fifth openly gay members of Congress. The Californian, Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, has a husband and 4-year-old twins, and would be Congress' first openly gay parent.
The races are unfolding on a rapidly shifting gay rights landscape, with activists elated by important court rulings, irked at setbacks in Washington and jolted by high-profile cases of anti-gay violence and bullying-provoked suicides.
The mixed emotions have been evident in recent days as a federal judge ordered a halt to enforcement of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The Obama administration says it agrees with the judge that gays should be allowed to serve openly. Yet to the frustration of gay activists, the administration appealed the ruling, saying it preferred that Congress repeal the policy.
"It's the best of times and worst of times," said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights.
"Culturally you see a huge increase in acceptance of gays and lesbians, and in the federal courts you see for the first time a willingness to embrace the Constitution as a vehicle for securing equality for gay people," Socarides said. "Yet in our nation's politics, we see essentially the opposite."
He said President Barack Obama has failed to deliver on his pledges to gays regarding marriage recognition and repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
"The president made a conscious decision coming in that these were second- and third-tier issues," Socarides said. "People were very excited by him. But he overpromised and underdelivered."
Obama said Thursday that the military policy "will end and it will end on my watch," but he acknowledged the constraints of the legal process.
Republicans have not emphasized social issues as much as in recent elections, calculating that dismay over the economy and frustration with the Democratic agenda will be enough to post big gains. The GOP's recent "Pledge to America" did not call for a federal ban on gay marriage or broach the issue of gays in the military.
"Even the most conservative Republicans understand that these issues don't work on their behalf nearly as effectively as they did a few years ago," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, a major financial backer of campaigns opposing same-sex marriage, said the GOP would be unwise to soften its stance on the issue.
"We're not saying the No. 1 issue in every state is same-sex marriage," he said. "We are saying it's an important issue, and Republicans abandon it at their peril."
A look at some of the notable races:
The high-profile races for governor and Senate coincide with legal wrangling over Proposition 8, the ballot measure approved by California voters in 2008 that banned same-sex marriage.
A federal judge ruled in August that the ban is unconstitutional. The case will be heard before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December. Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, supports same-sex marriage and has refused to defend Proposition 8 in court. His GOP opponent, Meg Whitman, opposes gay marriage and has pledged to defend the ban.
The Senate race has a similar split: Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer supports same-sex marriage and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina opposes it.
Proposition 8 supporters organized a bus tour across the state intended to rally Latino support for Fiorina based on the marriage issue. They also released a TV ad in Spanish highlighting Boxer's support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Last year, Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who said he opposed gay marriage, signed a bill legalizing it after lawmakers approved provisions affirming religious rights.
Lynch is up for re-election, facing a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, and the National Organization for Marriage is running ads against the governor depicting his signing of the bill as a betrayal of voters.
Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center said Lynch has a solid lead over GOP nominee John Stephen in the center's latest poll, while voters seem relatively at ease with legalized gay marriage.
"When the economy is bad, it tends to blow social issues out the door," Smith said. "Voters are more concerned about what's on the table than what their neighbor is doing."
There's a similar dynamic in the race to succeed Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. GOP candidate Tom Emmer opposes same-sex marriage, while Democrat Mark Dayton and independent Tom Horner support it.
The National Organization for Marriage has run TV ads for Emmer, highlighting the trio's stances on marriage. The ads infuriated some gay rights groups because they used the image of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs says Dayton appears to be leading, but the race is up for grabs. According to Jacobs, few voters consider gay marriage a vital issue, and Emmer has not emphasized it.
"In past years Republicans have used gay marriage as an issue to mobilize their base, to bring out conservatives," Jacobs said. "This year they don't need it."
Brown, the National Organization for Marriage's president, disagreed.
"When marriage becomes an issue, as it has in Minnesota, people understand what's at stake," he said. "This could be a decisive factor in governor's race."
The Republican candidate for governor, Carl Paladino, was considered an underdog from the outset in his race against Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
Now Paladino's task may be even harder after his recent entanglement in gay-related controversies. He railed against gay marriage in a speech to Orthodox Jewish leaders, then called the bumping-and-grinding at gay pride parades disgusting.
Under fire from gay rights advocates, including the Cuomo campaign, he apologized, costing him his support from a leading rabbi. Meanwhile, news reports surfaced that Paladino was once landlord of two gay clubs in Buffalo.
Polls show Iowa voters evenly split on whether to oust three Supreme Court justices who were part of the decision legalizing gay marriage. If the effort succeeds, it would be the first time since Iowa adopted its current system for appointing judges in 1962 that voters opted to remove a Supreme Court justice.
The targets include Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, who said the three wouldn't undertake a counter-campaign because they don't want to set a questionable example for judges by campaigning and raising money.
Brown said removal of any of the justices would be a "game-changer" with national impact.
"Judges will have to sit up and take notice that they can't just arbitrarily make up the law," he said.
Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org
National Organization for Marriage: http://www.nationformarriage.org
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