Back to the Future: GOP Revives Anti-Gay Marriage Campaign for ‘06

About Doug Ireland

An anti-gay marriage protestor in Boston. (Michael Springer, Getty Images)

An anti-gay marriage protestor in Boston. (Michael Springer, Getty Images)

As George Bush’s approval ratings on the Iraq war and the economy continue their slide downward, the Republican Party is determined to use the gay marriage issue and other punitive anti-gay measures to retain control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, and defend their one-state control of state legislatures. Why revive the anti-gay marriage fight? Because it works.

Along with homeland security, electoral gay-bashing was key to the Republicans’ 2004 sweep of the presidency and both houses of Congress. As former Clinton campaign strategist and CNN talking head James Carville summed up the Republicans’ message in his post-election analysis, “I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tikrit and the homos in Hollywood.”

The lynchpin of Karl Rove’s anti-gay strategy in 2004 was to increase turnout by social conservatives through a crusade against gay marriage. Surfing on the huge anti-gay backlash after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “sodomy” laws that made gay sex illegal, the GOP and its Christian Right shock troops mobilized. They placed referenda to ban gay marriage on the ballot in 11 states, including four of the “battleground” states.

Not only did the anti-gay marriage forces make a clean sweep of all eleven states, they succeeded in using the issue to drive up turnout among both Evangelical and Catholic voters, overwhelming the Democrats’ best-ever get-out-the-vote drive. Even in supposedly “liberal” Oregon, the ban on gay marriage passed by a whopping 14 points. And in Ohio (the state on which the presidential race turned), two-thirds of those who came to the polls voted against gay marriage—including not only the 24 percent of the state’s voters who self-identified as “born again,” but majorities of the nominally Democratic ethnic and largely working-class Catholics who are the swing vote in the Buckeye State’s cities and suburbs. That’s how John Kerry lost Ohio.

In Washington, the GOP proposed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. It failed, but four of the Democratic senators who helped defeat it were themselves defeated at the polls that fall. Florida, South Dakota, Louisiana and South Carolina all sent Republicans to Washington instead.

This year, the GOP is rolling out the same strategies—and also trying out some new ones.

Anti-Gay Tactics in Washington

First off, the Republican leadership has revived the Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex unions, with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist scheduling a vote for June. Once again, the objective is not so much to pass it as to get Democratic Senators on record as voting against it, so that the vote can be used to help defeat them.

The GOP is well aware of just how frightened the Democrats are of the gay marriage issue. For example, centrist Dems like California Senator Diane Feinstein have blamed the Democrats’ ‘04 defeat on gays who wanted “too much, too fast, too soon,” as she put it. Another example: well-known Democratic party operative Paul Yandura—who served in the Clinton White House as well as on the staff of the Clinton and Gore presidential campaigns — created a stir among party activists, both gay and straight, by sending an open letter on April 20 to gay Democrats criticizing Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and the party for not getting involved in state ballot measures seeking to ban gay marriage. Dean’s response? Less than a week later he fired the party’s gay outreach advisor Donald Hitchcock — who was Yandura’s domestic partner (a move Yandura described as “retaliation, pure and simple”). Knowing the Democrats won’t stand up to defend gay marriage from electoral and ballot attacks has encouraged the Republicans in their insidiously clever anti-gay strategy.

Moreover, since ’04, the Bush Administration has strengthened the GOP’s electoral hand, and its anti-gay strategy, beyond electoral tactics by funneling huge amounts of political patronage to allies in conservative churches. These “faith-based initiatives” underwrite proselytizing campaigns by the Christian Right and tear down the wall separating Church and State.

Even better for electioneering purposes, faith-based initiatives widen the power and local visibility of recipients, which helps conservatives during campaign season. Religious groups now play a huge role in public housing, receiving 24 percent of grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing subsidies. A quarter of the $15 billion the White House originally pledged to fight AIDS was diverted to sexual abstinence programs run by religious organizations. And this year, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) upped that earmark for abstinence-only-until-marriage education to 33 percent. The deficit reduction bill that Bush signed in February channels $500 million into programs to promote and strengthen heterosexual marriage.

In Bush’s five years in the White House, he has reshaped the bureaucracy to institutionalize these patronage flows to religious groups. Eleven government agencies have set up religious offices, ostensibly to help coordinate the provision of social services by faith-based organizations. In reality they channel the money to Republican allies among the religious. In early March of this year, the President even established a religious office in the Department of Homeland Security—with churches and church-related institutions getting a majority share of the monies allocated for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

This massive ladling out of religious patronage by the Republicans guarantees that churches, priests and preachers will be oh-so enthusiastic in carrying the anti-gay message to their flocks and in encouraging parishioners to vote on the basis of “moral” and “family values”—the prime target, of course, being gay-friendly Democrats.

Beltway Tactics Beyond the Government

We now know that in 2004, a GOP front group in Washington also proved innovative in directing strategy— and money flows—to the grassroots. A study released in January by the Institute on Money in State Politics, “The Money Behind the 2004 Marriage Amendments,” showed that of the $6.8 billion filed as legal campaign contributions to support referenda banning gay marriage, “contributors affiliated with conservative Christian organizations gave $2.2 million. Nearly $2 million of this amount, or 89 percent, came from members of the so-called ‘Arlington Group,’ a coalition with close ties to the Bush White House.”

The Arlington Group—so secretive it doesn’t even have a website—was formed in 2003 by a key White House Christian Right ally, the Rev. Donald Wildmon. Wildmon is head of the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association, which—through its broadcasting arm, American Family Radio—runs a network of more than 200 Christian radio stations and affiliate groups. The Arlington Group was formed in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the sodomy laws, and in expectation that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court would hold gay marriage to be a civil right (as indeed it did in 2003).

It is unknown to the public and rarely surfaces in the press, but the influential Arlington Group’s membership includes not only such well-known Christian Right groups as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, and the Family Research Council, but also a raft of 57 other little-known but potent entities like, the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, the American Association of Christian Schools, the Coalition of African-American Pastors, the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, the National Religious Broadcasters Association, and the National Association of Christian Evangelicals. The last is headed by the Rev.Ted Haggard, pastor of the immense, 11,000-member New Life Church in Colorado, who—as Jeffrey Sharlet reported in a May 2005 Harper’s magazine profile of the powerful preacher —personally talks to Bush or his advisers every Monday. Many of the Arlington Group’s members have benefited from the Bush administration’s religious patronage.

Politicians are also in the Arlington Group circle, including Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth J. Blackwell. Blackwell not only served as co-chair of Bush’s 2004 campaign in Ohio, he was the public servant responsible for an election system which pushed Bush to victory by depressing the black, pro-Kerry vote in the state. A 2005 study confirmed that black voters waited three times longer than whites to vote and were more likely to be asked—illegally—by poll workers for identification.

In a December 2004 column, Weyrich —a key ideological leader of the Christian Right—boasted that “the effort to put marriage on the ballot in eleven states emanated from the Arlington Group. And the resources to go full-tilt in Ohio were raised from participants in the group.” The Institute for Money in State Politics report notes that, “campaign contributions from member groups of [The Arlington Group] went most heavily to Ohio, totaling $1.18 million, nearly all of the money given to support Ohio’s amendment and 59 percent of the $1.99 million in contributions given by organizations or individuals connected with the Arlington Group.” Not only did Arlington Group member organizations funnel financial resources to Ohio, but they also gave heavily in two other states considered to be presidential battle-grounds—$546,600 in Michigan and $138,360 in Oregon.

The direct contributions required to be filed by state election laws for the anti-gay marriage referendum campaigns represent only the tip of the iceberg. Not included are many in-kind contributions. For example, the Washington Post reported that leaders of the Arlington Group had jointly hired or loaned several full-time staff members to work on the gay-marriage issue in ‘04. Moreover, Arlington Group members undertook advertising campaigns targeting House and Senate candidates on the marriage issue in at least six of the states with ballot measures on the issue: Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma. But this advertising was not included in the referendum campaign filings.

Complete records of contributions aren’t available until after elections, but rest assured the Arlington Group will work the money flows equally well in 2006.

The Church is in the Fight

The role of Catholics in the anti-gay marriage crusade has been seriously under-reported. But one of the most successful Arlington Group associates in the ‘04 referenda was the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), founded in 1973 by American Catholics. C. Preston Noell III is on the TFP board of directors and is editor of Crusade, a TFP magazine. He also is a member of the Arlington Group. TFP was behind the Traditional Marriage Crusade ballot committees formed in nine states in ’04; as its website proclaims, it is already gearing up for this year’s election cycle.

In the battleground state of Michigan, $1 million for the ‘04 referendum campaign came directly from seven Roman Catholic dioceses in Michigan. Their contributions to a committee supporting the same-sex marriage ban represented 36 percent of the total contributions raised by the anti-gay marriage amendment committees in Michigan.

The Catholic Church’s role in the anti-gay marriage fight is sure to strengthen in 2006 under the new Pope Benedict XVI (formerly the anti-gay zealot Cardinal Ratzinger). In February, theologians and jurists, including many Americans, took part in a five-day seminar on how to legally ban gay marriage, organized by the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and the Family at the Vatican’s Lateran University in Rome. And when the Pope made an American and long-time ally—San Francisco Archbishop William Levada— a cardinal and gave Levada his old job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it signaled that the fight over gay marriage in the United States will be getting a lot more Vatican attention.

One Church’s Example

Rarely do the efforts of local churches and pastors to turn out the anti-gay vote attract the scrutiny of state election authorities. One of the rare instances is in Montana.

There, as the Associated Press reported this March, Montana State Commissioner of Political Practices Gordon Higgins ruled that Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena violated state law by not reporting, to his office, the church’s in-kind support of a state constitutional ban on gay marriage. The church held meetings and collected signatures to put the ban on the ballot, becoming, according to Higgins, an “incidental political committee.” The gay marriage ban passed by a 2-1 margin in ‘04.

Multiply that Montana church by thousands of other churches across the country whose anti-gay organizing is not legally reported and is off the media radar screen, and one begins to get a truer picture of the role of religious institutions in the anti-gay marriage fight. The pulpit is a powerful forum for getting out the anti-gay vote.

Tactics for 2006

Anti-gay organizing for the ‘06 election is well under way. Months before Congress voted on the anti-gay marriage amendment to the US Constitution, the Alliance for Marriage announced it will organize retribution against those who oppose it.

In Iowa, Arlington Group member Focus on the Family ran full-page newspaper ads targeting Democratic state legislators for blocking debate on a proposed state constitutional ban on gay marriage, preventing Iowans from voting on the amendment. The ads’ demagogic slogan? “Iraqis Have the Right to Vote, Why Don’t Iowans?”

Legislatures in Maryland, West Virginia, and New Hampshire all blocked Republican attempts to put anti-gay marriage amendments to their state constitutions on the fall ballot. But Republican propagandists are gearing up to use those votes against the amendments to beat Democrats. And in Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, and a half-dozen other states, constitutional same-sex marriage bans either have been or are being put on the ballot for this fall by the legislatures or by petition.

In Minnesota—which already has a law on the books defining marriage as between a man and a woman—St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic Archbishop Harry Flynn has urged his priests to participate in a statewide campaign by Minnesota for Marriage to activate religious leaders in support of a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions. At the same time, a church-based group called Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage ran radio, print and direct mail ads all Spring targeting a dozen state senators who oppose the ban.

In February, Catholic theologians and jurists took part in a five-day seminar on how to legally ban gay marriage.

Minnesota is also the testing ground for a new GOP tactic: a CD-ROM devised by the Minnesota Republican Party to build support for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Featuring clips from born-again GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other statewide office-holders, the mini-documentary has another purpose: building up a voter database. To watch the video, a person has to go to an Internet site and punch in an ID code that tells the Party who is viewing it. Once the video is going, viewers are asked questions on subjects like abortion, gun control and Party preference. But it contains no warnings saying that data is collected and transmitted to the Republican Party, nor does it indicate what other data about the user is being collected once the Party is connected to one‘s home computer.

Electronic privacy groups have condemned this covert data-collection as “sneaky” and “dangerous.”

In Congress, the Republicans have more arrows in their quiver than just the Federal Marriage Amendment. They introduced House bills saying no state constitution can be construed to require legalization of anything but “normal” marriage between a man and a woman. And even before the Defense of Marriage bill is passed, let alone ratified by the states, the House Republicans introduced a bill that would safeguard from judicial review its provision allowing states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Finally, they sought to ban same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia.

Another anti-gay innovation for the 2006 campaign: In Ohio and 12 other states, the GOP has introduced legislation to ban adoptions by same-sex couples.

After a March 2006 Pew Poll purported to show a decline in opposition to gay marriage from 63 percent to 51 percent, some in the gay community waxed optimistic, and some Democrats began to surmise that the gay marriage issue was losing its hot-button status in electoral behavior.. But, as Jeff Soref, a former Democratic National Committeeman who chairs the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York, commented when it was released:

That’s in the absence of any sort of very focused and negative advertising campaign about gay rights and marriage equality. When the Republicans start to really organize around it—through the pulpit and churches and advertising and people on the ground —you will probably see opinion move again.

Moreover, a subsequent Gallup Poll released in April this year reported that opposition to gay marriage had actually risen to 68 percent, as compared to 55 percent in a poll Gallup had taken the year before. So, there is little cause for optimism; 2006 is shaping up as yet another dangerous year in the anti-gay culture wars.

Doug Ireland, a veteran political journalist, can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at