It would be ironic if Wisconsin's same-sex marriage ban ends up being a wedge issue that benefits Democrats in the fall elections.
Republicans succeeded in placing the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the November 2006 ballot, when Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, was up for reelection. The move was part of a national GOP effort to rally the Republican base with hot-button social issues.
The strategy did not play out as expected in Wisconsin. The measure brought young, liberal voters to the polls in droves. Doyle was reelected, and Democrats picked up seats in small college towns, including Eau Claire, Whitewater and Platteville. The constitutional amendment, nevertheless, won with resounding support -- 59% to 41%.
With the November elections eight months away, marriage-equality advocates in Wisconsin are launching parallel efforts aimed at toppling the state's eight-year-old constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions.
State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa says she and Sen. Tim Carpenter will this week start circulating a bill to repeal Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It's the first legislative attempt to repeal the ban.
Zamarripa acknowledges the bill faces an uphill fight in the state Legislature, where Republicans control both houses. But she says the timing is right.
"It is important to highlight the issue, especially in light of the many comments the governor and Republicans are making around marriage equality," she says.
Gov. Scott Walker, who is also eyeing a presidential bid in 2016, has said he plans to steer clear of contentious social issues in order to focus on the economy.
"I take offense to that," says Zamarripa. "While he and [wife] Tonette get to enjoy all the rights and benefits of marriage, LGBT families in our state are dealing with this ugly, discriminatory ban in our Constitution."
Zamarripa says the issue, despite Walker's reluctance to weigh in, will play a role in the fall elections, when he is up for reelection, along with half the state senators and all Assembly members.
"I hear the press asking the governor what he feels about [marriage equality]. I hear the press asking [Democratic gubernatorial challenger] Mary Burke about it. I think it's inevitable it will be a topic of discussion in the upcoming election cycle."
On the campaign trail
The issue already surfaced in the race for attorney general, an open seat since J.B. Van Hollen is not running for reelection. The day the ACLU announced its lawsuit, Democratic challenger and state Rep. Jon Richards said in a news release that he would not defend the state's marriage ban if he were attorney general. This week he announced his launch of an online petition calling for the justice department to cease its defense of the amendment.
Given Richards' proactive stance, it's clear he doesn't see same-sex marriage as a negative on the campaign trail. Political director Andy Suchorski did not disagree with this assessment, but says Richards' position is "not a political thing for him. It's something he really believes. It's why we're pushing it."
According to the Associated Press, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, another Democratic candidate, also said he would not defend the gay marriage ban. Brad Schimel, Republican challenger and Waukesha County district attorney, said in a statement he would.
"It is the responsibility of the attorney general to defend the laws of our state, not to substitute his or her personal opinions for the law," Schimel said. "It appears that Rep. Richards wants to make policy. That is the job of the Legislature, not the attorney general."
Schimel's campaign could not answer whether the district attorney would, based on that logic, defend the state's domestic partner registry. Van Hollen, also a Republican, has refused to do so.
A different outcome
Given Republican control of the state Legislature, Fair Wisconsin, the statewide gay-rights organization, has spent the last few years working to get domestic partner and anti-discrimination ordinances passed in cities around the state.
But Katie Belanger, president and CEO of Fair Wisconsin, agrees that the time is right to begin the long process necessary for repeal of the amendment. A bill to amend the constitution must pass in two successive sessions of the state Legislature before it can be put to a statewide vote.
"It's something our legislative allies have wanted to do for a very long time," says Belanger.
Belanger says it's important to highlight where lawmakers stand on the issue of same-sex marriage and, at the same time, illustrate how far people Wisconsin residents have come on marriage equality since 2006.
In an October 2012 Marquette Law School poll (PDF), 44% indicated support for same-sex marriage and 28% for civil unions; 23% were opposed to any legal recognition. Just one year later, 53% of those surveyed (PDF) supported legalizing same-sex marriage and 24% favored civil unions. Only 19% were opposed to legal recognition for same-sex unions.
Pollster and political scientist Charles Franklin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time that the increase in support in just one year "is very much in line with national polling."
Belanger says she has no doubt the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage would be defeated if put on the ballot now.
"I absolutely think if the vote happened today we'd have a very different outcome from 2006."