Dueling wedge issues in Wisconsin

Gay marriage isn't what it used to be, and Democrats may have found something -- stem cell research -- that trumps it.

Published August 3, 2006 3:58PM (EDT)

In 2004, observers attributed much of President Bush's slim margin of victory to the clever use of a single wedge issue. Ballot initiatives banning gay marriage may have lured more conservative voters to the polls in 11 states, and Bush won all those states except Michigan and Oregon.

Two years later, Republicans are again using gay marriage to rouse their socially conservative base. In November six more states will vote on whether to ban same-sex unions. But in the battleground state of Wisconsin, early polling suggests that gay marriage may be losing some of its Election Day magic -- and that Democrats have found a wedge issue of their own with as much or more drawing power.

Incumbent Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, is embroiled in a close race with his Republican challenger, Rep. Mark Green. On July 19, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell research. Green voted against federal funding, and then voted against it again when the Senate tried and failed to override Bush's veto. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in late July showed that 58 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's veto, and 68 percent favored expanding federal funding for stem cell research. The Doyle campaign saw an opportunity.

On July 25, the campaign released an ad attacking Green on the issue. Titled "Six Times," the ad calls Green "too extreme to be governor." It features Wisconsin resident Jody Montgomery and her 4-year-old daughter, Maddy, who has juvenile diabetes. In the ad, Montgomery tells voters that "six times a day, I take Maddy's blood. Six times a day, it breaks my heart. It's stem cell researchers right here in Wisconsin who might find the cure. So when a Washington politician like Mark Green says he's going to outlaw stem cell research, I say, 'Tell it to my daughter.'"

The ad is just one part of a many-pronged effort by the Doyle campaign, which has hired a full-time stem cell coordinator and seeks to portray the governor as a hero on the issue in the state where the science was first pioneered in 1998. The campaign had already positioned Doyle as a supporter of research before Bush's veto and Green's votes. There are no poll numbers yet to suggest whether the approach is working, but an independent pollster says that in Wisconsin, as in the nation as a whole, the numbers are already on Doyle's side.

Within the state, says Kathy Cramer Walsh, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, stem cell research enjoys broad support. "There's probably a pride factor going on," says Walsh. "It seems that there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who are in favor of stem cell research, are proud that some of the early research was done here, and also don't see it as an immoral act."

Walsh conducted a poll on stem cells, via the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, which gave respondents a series of statements and asked them to rate their feelings on a 10-point scale. A 1.0 indicated that they disagreed completely and a 10 meant they agreed completely. The average Wisconsinite rated the statement "I approve the use of stem cell research, as long as the usual levels of government regulation are in place" a 6.8, and the statement "I approve of stem cell research if it is more tightly regulated" a 6.4. The anti-research statement "It is ethically wrong to use human embryos in medical research even if it might offer promising new treatments" earned a mere 3.7.

Democrats have done their own internal polling on the issue. A paid Democratic strategist, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign, called the results of that polling a "show-stopper." He declined to share specific numbers, but said, "Let's put it this way -- [the numbers were high] enough that we thought it was worth spending precious resources to put it on TV."

Green's campaign, meanwhile, charges that Doyle is misrepresenting his opponent's views. "The main beef with [Doyle's ad] is just that it's an outright lie," says Rob Vernon, communications director for the Green campaign. "They have a mom in the ad say that Mark Green wants to outlaw stem cell research, and that's absolutely not true." The Doyle ad refers to Green voting against stem cell research eight times, a number Vernon disputes. "The votes that they cite would have banned human cloning, and all the votes they talked about had specific carve-outs to protect stem cell research. He supports adult and umbilical cord blood stem cell research; he also supports the federal policy that's in place -- federal funding for embryonic stem cell lines that were in existence prior to August of 2001."

And should stem cells begin to erode Green's support, Republicans have already deployed their own proven wedge issue to rally their conservative base. If there has been an unstoppable force in American politics over the past decade, it is the march of opponents of same-sex marriage. They have launched voter referendums to ban the practice in 20 states and won in a landslide each time. Wisconsin will have an anti-gay marriage initiative on the ballot on Nov. 7, an amendment to the state Constitution that would ban same-sex unions.

The numbers, however, are not as favorable to Republicans as they have been in the past. Polls show that Wisconsin voters are more closely divided than voters have been in other states. The previous gay-marriage ban that came closest to failing, Oregon's 2004 referendum, still drew 57 percent support. In Wisconsin, however, a poll conducted in mid-June by WisPolitics.com showed Wisconsinites evenly divided on a proposed amendment to the state's Constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions.

The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, found that 48.5 percent of Wisconsin adults supported the bill, while 47.8 opposed it and 3.7 percent were undecided or refused to answer. A similar poll released July 17 by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center showed 52.5 percent in favor of the bill, 43.8 percent opposed and 3 percent undecided.

Julaine Appling, CEO of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin and the most visible of the amendment's proponents, says she's not worried. She calls the WisPolitics.com poll "bogus."

"It appears to me," Appling says, "that it's an opportunity that an organization took to try to weigh in on this issue and make people think that it's evenly split in the state, and I will tell you it's not evenly split ... That poll was not filtered for likely voters. Quite frankly, the people who are not interested in voting, I don't care what they think. I want to know what people who are going to the polls think."

On that point, however, Appling may be disappointed. Though the pollsters have come up with differing numbers on support for the amendment, they agree that the amendment may end up bucking a trend, motivating liberals to the polls as much as or more than the evangelicals at whom this issue was aimed.

"Of those who identified themselves as liberals in [our] poll, more than 80 percent were opposed to [the amendment]," says J.R. Ross, editor of WisPolitics.com. "That was the most intense reaction from any of the groups. It seems that this is really a passionate issue for liberals, which may drive them to the polls this fall." Kathy Cramer Walsh of the University of Wisconsin seconded the notion that the same-sex-marriage ban could boost liberal turnout.

The intensity of feeling against the ban has engendered an effective opposition movement. Amendment opponents have built the largest coalition seen to date on the issue, bringing in advocacy organizations from all over the political map as well as some of the state's most influential politicians.

The state Democratic Party officially opposes the amendment, the first state party in the country to do so. Wisconsin's two senators, Democrats Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, have come out against the ban, and Feingold has declared his support for the outright legalization of same-sex marriage. The state AFL-CIO, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Medical Association and two sections of the Wisconsin Bar Association have all declared their opposition. According to Fair Wisconsin, the opponents' lead activist group, anti-amendment forces count as supporters some 700 religious congregations representing almost 500,000 members.

Mike Tate, campaign director for Fair Wisconsin, believes some of his organization's success in gaining mainstream political support reflects a national trend. "I think a lot of it has to do with the national mood shifting on this," Tate says. "I think the public's just sick of this being brought up time and time again. They know it's divisive; they know it's mean-spirited."

A survey conducted in March by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that "opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to marry has faded in recent years  in keeping with the long-term trend toward acceptance of gay marriage seen in surveys leading up to the 2004 race."

In Wisconsin, opponents of the gay-marriage ban have found unexpected allies in the authors of the amendment itself. Simply prohibiting gay marriage is still an almost surefire political winner in any state. In a political misstep, however, the amendment goes further than that, into civil unions, territory on which Americans are more closely divided, and also includes wording that can be interpreted to refer to unmarried heterosexual couples as well.

The amendment is just two sentences long. Its first sentence defines marriage; its second -- "A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state" -- is intended to ban civil unions. It is this second sentence, and its ambiguity, that opponents have seized upon, warning that it may affect heterosexuals as well by banning domestic-partner benefits, affecting pensions and making it harder, if not impossible, for unmarried straight couples to share health insurance and decisions.

In early July, Fair Wisconsin released its first TV commercial, which attacks the amendment's second sentence. "This amendment is about a lot more than gay marriage," a narrator warns. "It would also ban rights for all couples who aren't married, gay or straight. It would deny healthcare benefits, jeopardize hospital visits and medical decisions and deny pensions for all unmarried couples. So when you hear this ban is about gay marriage, remember -- it's about a whole lot more." To be fair, though, the issue is not nearly so clear-cut. Don Dyke, chief of legal services with the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a nonpartisan research and advisory arm of the Legislature, has written two memos in response to legislators' requests for interpretation of the amendment's second sentence. In each, he concludes that the amendment would not affect domestic-partner benefits. But ultimately, say Dyke and other legal experts, the interpretation of the amendment is up to the courts.

If stem cells do trump gay marriage in November, Wisconsin may prove to be a political testing ground for 2008 and beyond. Wisconsin is a purple state that was recently identified by CNN's polling director as the state whose demographics are most representative of the Union as a whole.

Mark Mellman, CEO of consulting firm the Mellman Group, which has done some polling for the Doyle campaign, says Wisconsin could prove to be the turning point for Democrats on the culture issue. "The reality is, on the stem cell issue, Democrats play the culture card. These are issues where the majority of Americans are on our side, and that's going to be truer over time."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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