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Bryan Schott's Political BS: 2004 All Over Again

by Bryan Schott
- Posted // 2013-08-27 -
Reports that Overstock.com’s Jonathan Johnson is mulling a constitutional amendment to protect religious organizations from being forced to perform same-sex marriages should come as good news for Utah’s Republicans.

If the measure gets on the ballot in 2014, it could boost Republican turnout at the polls and cut off at the knees  efforts by Utah Democrats to woo LDS voters.

Remember 2004, when the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage was on Utah’s ballot? Turnout that year was unusually high for a general election -- 942,000 Utahns hit the polls that year,  almost 200,000 more than turned out in the 2000 general election. Most of that increase was because of Amendment 3.

Sixty-two percent of Utah’s population is LDS. Obviously, not all of them are going to vote in 2014, but a constitutional amendment protecting their religion from having to solemnize a practice that goes against their basic beliefs would be a powerful incentive to get out on election day.

The low turnout in Utah’s midterm elections in Utah usually favors Republicans, anyway; young voters who might tilt Democratic mostly stay home. Add to the mix social issue voters, who tend to vote for the GOP, and you’ve got the makings of a big Republican advantage in 2014.

Add to this the uncomfortable position in which this would put Utah’s Democrats. The party is closely aligned with Equality Utah. Most Democratic candidates covet an endorsement from that group. Many big Utah donors are supporters of gay rights. That ties the hands of party; a large number of them will be forced to either argue against the proposed amendment, or stay silent. Meanwhile, their Republican opponent would be able to use it as a rallying cry for LDS voters. It’s bringing a whiffle-ball bat to a knife fight.

Speaking of LDS voters, this effort could kneecap Utah’s minority party and their efforts to appeal to that part of the electorate. Insiders in the party tell me that chairman Jim Dabakis firmly believes that the LDS Dems group will pay off big time with new Democratic voters. Having the party either oppose the amendment, or take some wishy-washy middle position, won’t go over too well with the very Mormon voters they’re trying to attract.

I predict that most Democratic candidates will be forced to say something like, “I believe religious organizations should have the right to defend their own traditions without being forced to perform ceremonies they are fundamentally opposed to, but Utah’s Constitution already prohibits same-sex marriage, so this amendment is unnecessary.” That’s the political equivalent to a bite into a mealy apple -- the taste isn’t bad, but the texture is totally off-putting and makes you want to spit it out immediately. Not exactly the dog whistle to social conservatives that Republican candidates will be able to blow.

Johnson should have no problem getting his measure before voters in 2014. It’s almost certain he will find a friendly legislator or two on the Hill to champion his cause. If a majority of both houses vote in favor, it’s on to the ballot. Given that the GOP enjoys a supermajority in the House and the Senate, it’s not a leap to imagine that scenario playing out without too much opposition from Democrats.

Once it’s on the ballot, passage seems like a fait accompli. Johnson wouldn’t have much trouble raising the money for advertising and promotion. Plus, there would only be token opposition -- the same as with Amendment 3 in 2004.

It’s not surprising Johnson is pushing something like this. He’s often been mentioned as a possible political candidate for governor or other statewide office. This is the sort of thing that would play well with caucus voters, and establish his conservative bona fides at the same time. Becoming the face of a measure to protect religious liberty in a highly religious state could be just the ticket to propel him forward in 2016.

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

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