Is Gay Marriage on the Line in Iowa?

It's Election Day, though most of the country won't notice. Beside a handful of referendums with wide-reaching consequences, there are few contested elections, and the two big-ticket contests—gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi—aren't in question. But one small state Senate election in Iowa could have a significant impact on the LGBT community.

Republican Cindy Golding is facing off against Democrat Liz Mathis in the state's 18th District. The special election was triggered when Republican Governor Terry Branstad appointed the incumbent (a Democrat) to a state board earlier this fall.

What's so important about a single Iowa Senate seat? Democrats currently hold a 26-24 majority in the chamber, so the election will decide which party controls the legislative body. And if Golding wins, the Republicans will likely use their new majority to begin the process of repealing Iowa's same-sex marriage law.

Since the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage rights in 2009, Democrats have held a majority in at least one of the state's chambers. Republicans gained control of the statehouse last fall and came close to turning the Senate as well. Mike Gronstal, the Democrats' majority leader in the Senate, has blocked any proposal to amend the constitution, but if he loses his position tonight, you can be sure the Republican majority will begin rolling back rights for LGBT couples.

National conservative groups like Citizens United and the National Organization for Marriage have poured money into what would normally amount to a sleepy local election. Golding herself joined the Family Research Councils' Values Voters bus earlier this week, which has been touring the state to moralize against same-sex marriage. Voters in the district have heard from former presidential candidate and Iowa favorite Mike Huckabee, who recorded a robo-call running this week. This is the second time an Iowa election has been turned into a proxy battle over same-sex marriage. Last year, the retention vote of three state Supreme Court justices—normally a routine affair with no campaigning involved—become the target of the state's social conservative movement, and all three judges were voted off the bench.

It's hard to trust polls for such a small election, but PPP gave the Democrat Mathis a six-point edge last week, and Democrats lead in the number of absentee ballots both requested and returned.

Amending Iowa's constitution is a long slog; a proposed amendment must pass both chambers of the legislature in two consecutive legislative bodies. It’s part of the reason LGBT-rights groups targeted Iowa when they began searching for a Midwestern state where same-sex marriage could pass. If Golding wins today, Republicans could use their new majority to pass an amendment during the next session, and if they maintain their majorities after the 2012 election, they could pass the amendment once more to put it up for a popular vote in 2014. Recent polls from the state indicate that a constitutional ban would likely pass, with support at a 50 percent to 43 percent advantage for now. Those numbers would likely become much closer by the time 2014 rolls around, especially since seniors were the main opponents to the law by a margin of 62 percent to 29 percent. As these voters are phased out of the voting population, their more tolerant grandchildren will likely vote to keep the state's civil liberties for same-sex couples.

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