May 16 (Bloomberg) -- The defeat of a same-sex civil unions bill in Colorado shows how Democrats will try to use rising support for gay couples’ rights to help President Barack Obama win the battleground state and its nine electoral votes in November.
Governor John Hickenlooper, a first-term Democrat, called a special legislative session this week forcing Republicans, who had killed the bill once before, to do it again in the glare of more publicity. The measure would have permitted same-sex couples to inherit each other’s property, take family leave and make medical end-of-life decisions for one another.
Polling done last month suggests that the defeat of civil unions could help Obama, who carried Colorado in 2008, repeat the victory by appealing to the state’s swing voters, said Jim Williams, of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic research firm.
“It’s not a winning issue for Republicans with a lot of the key swing groups in Colorado,” Williams said. “There’s been a question on a presidential level if Obama can bring out young voters like he did in 2008. When you have Republicans so out of step on an issue that is a no-brainer for voters under 30, that might energize them to vote.”
About 77 percent of Colorado voters under 30 think gay marriage should be legal, according to poll results released by Williams’ firm April 13. The survey also found that 62 percent of the state’s voters approved the same-sex civil union measure, with 83 percent of Democrats in favor and 75 percent of independents supporting the bill.
Republicans think voters will be alienated by Democrats’ decision to force the civil-unions issue, said Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, who used legislative tactics to defeat the bill last week and again on May 14, on the first day of Hickenlooper’s special session.
“We ought not and should not be spending time on divisive issues,” said McNulty, the top Republican in the state legislature. “It appears Governor Hickenlooper is out of touch with most Coloradans. Our House GOP remains commited to getting Colorado back to work. Kitchen table issues like job creation and economic uncertainty are those issues that weigh on Coloradans minds.”
Hickenlooper’s push to keep civil unions in the public eye may peel professional suburban Republican voters away from the party in November, said Bob Loevy, a Republican and retired political science professor at Colorado Springs-based Colorado College.
‘Drives a Wedge’
“It keeps the issue alive and drives the wedge deeper in the Republican party,” Loevy said. “It’s a very big split in the party, both nationally and in Colorado. Upscale, better educated Republicans are driven away.”
The question now is how effectively coalitions on both sides of the issue will be able to mobilize their constituents in the fall, said Steve Sanders, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School who has studied the politics of same-sex marriage.
“The social conservatives in Colorado Springs were going to be mobilized against Obama in any case,” Sanders said. “The question is by what additional margin will they be energized by his support for same-sex marriage and will his supporters be able to show their appreciation by counter mobilizing.”
The battle between Hickenlooper -- a moderate Democrat known for his ties to the state’s business leaders -- and House Republicans is likely to remain in fresh Coloradans’ memories this fall, Loevy said.
“Over the 44 years I’ve been here this is probably the most divisive issue we’ve had,” Loevy said.
The issue of gay marriage first flared in Colorado two decades ago, when voters approved Amendment 2, making it unconstitutional to pass special interest legislation that benefited gays and lesbians. The Supreme Court subsequently found the initiative unconstitutional.
In 2006, voters rejected a domestic partnerships ballot initiative and amended the state constitution to declare marriage a contract between a man and a woman.
In the six years since then, Coloradans have increasingly embraced gay rights, with 53 percent of voters surveyed in April by Public Policy Polling saying they think gay marriage should be legal.
Representative Don Coram, vice chairman of the state affairs committee and a Republican from Montrose, Colorado, said on May 14 that he voted against the civil union measure -- even though his son is gay -- because his constituents in the southwestern part of the state oppose it.
“I’m concerned the gay community is being used as a political pawn,” Coram said during the committee’s deliberations. “If you were to bring this to a vote I think there’s a chance it would happen.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at Joldham1@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Taylor at Jtaylor48@bloomberg.net