There is intriguing news that some big-money Republicans have launched an effort to legalize gay marriage at the state level, starting in Minnesota. It’s a smart move when you think about it. ---While many Republicans oppose same-sex marriage on moral or religious grounds, the fight has become a distraction from other pressing priorities for the GOP. How can Republicans turn their focus to issues like the deficit, or attract younger voters (who increasingly favor gay marriage) if they keep fighting this battle?
That got me thinking: What would happen to the Utah political landscape if gay marriage were suddenly legal? Granted, this is farfetched because Utah is nowhere close to making that move. But, it’s fun to play the “what if” game.
If it happened, there would be some real, tangible changes to the political atmosphere in the state. First of all, LaVarr Christensen would have to find a new legislative obsession. Second, it could conceivably push Utah’s Democrats even further into the political background.
Let me explain. While legalizing gay marriage would be a huge (and I cannot overstate this at all) win for Utah’s Democrats, perhaps they should be careful what they wish for. When you think of Utah’s minority party, what issue comes to mind at the top of the list? If you didn’t say gay rights, you haven’t been paying much attention. The big legislative victory for the Dems on the Hill this past session was standing back and cheering as a Republican shepherded a nondiscrimination bill out of committee, for the first time ever. The Senate refused a full floor vote on the measure, but they’re touting it as a victory nonetheless. The party’s energy seemingly has coalesced around the issue of gay rights. Many of their big donors are heavy hitters in the gay-rights movement. One of the most sought after endorsements for Democratic candidates is from Equality Utah.
This cuts both ways. I think Utah’s Republicans would see benefits from moving past the fight over same sex-marriage. No longer would they be painted with a broad brush as anti-gay and uncaring. Sure, legalizing gay marriage would be a stinging loss -- one that would cause much resentment and anger. But, down the road, it could strengthen their political hand considerably.
So, with the absence of same-sex marriage as a point of contention, most of the remaining political fights still on the table lean toward Republicans.
As a party, what else have the Democrats put their time and energy into lately? Education? Not really. Of the dozens of bills dealing with education during the just-finished 2013 legislative session, a mere handful were sponsored by Democrats. Granted, there’s only a mere handful of Democrats left on the Hill. But, education is historically a Dem bailiwick -- and they’re in danger of losing the tactical high ground. The UEA, usually friendly to Democrats, endorsed a number of Republicans in last year’s election -- most notably Gov. Gary Herbert over Democrat Peter Cooke. In fact, it seems like Democrats are largely abdicating the fight over improving public education to the business community. That’s certainly where most of the bold ideas, like Prosperity 2020, are coming from.
How about the fight over public lands? Outside of the Wasatch Front, Democrats don’t have much support on this issue. They’re firmly in the corner of preservation, which is essentially a non-starter in the southern part of the state. Why do you think there are exactly zero Democrats from outside of Salt Lake County on the Hill? Republicans are in tune with most of the rest of Utah here.
That Republican advantage on public lands turns into a net negative when it comes to the environment. Here is a place Utah’s Democrats still have the advantage. Sure, they basically did nothing to address the environment during the 2013 session aside from a few “feel good” press conferences and minor bills -- even though the crappy Salt Lake City air and Republican inaction provided them with a huge opening they failed to take advantage of. But, when your numbers are so depleted, there’s only so much energy to go around, and it certainly wasn’t focused here.
The economy is not much of a lightning rod. Republicans haven’t made any major missteps to provide an opening their opponents can exploit. Additionally, Gov. Herbert loves to tout the fact that Utah is seen as one of the best places, if not the best, for businesses in the entire country.
There might be some flare-ups on social issues from time to time. Certainly, we might see some entertaining skirmishes over guns or abortion, but those are not the kinds of issues that win and lose elections in Utah.
Make no mistake: The fight over same-sex marriage is powerful and primal. Both sides are extremely committed. Both sides can fundraise like crazy off of it. But, the end is coming, no matter what. Recent polls show a majority of Americans favor legalizing gay marriage. Many observers predict the Supreme Court will strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and possibly Prop 8 sometime this summer. The tide is turning -- maybe it already has.
Stat guru Nate Silver says current demographic trends will lead to a majority of Utahns in support of legalizing gay marriage by 2020. That’s a scant seven years away. While Utah’s Democrats will likely claim credit if and when it finally happens, they’re woefully unprepared to shift away from this fight when it becomes moot.
It’s not just Democrats who need to prepare for a world without the gay-marriage controversy. Utah’s Republicans would be wise to take some of the energy they’re expending on what is quickly becoming a losing battle and steal some issues like education and the environment away from the Democrats.
The only way for Democrats to avoid getting caught in a political pincers movement is to increase their numbers on the Hill. Focusing too much on gay rights is certainly not the way to do that, unless they’re hoping for a sweep in Salt Lake County.
This post originally appeared at UtahPolicy.com. Bryan Schott is managing editor of UtahPolicy.com and UtahPulse.com. He is an award-winning journalist who has covered politics in Utah for more than 15 years. He also blogs at SchottHappens.com.