The GOP's dwindling anti-gay parade

Polls show Americans turning their backs on the divisive politics of homosexuality. Will hard-liners in the heartland, like Colorado's Marilyn Musgrave, be forced to follow?

Michael Scherer
November 3, 2006 6:30PM (UTC)

In this season of porno-themed political ads and anti-gay marriage amendments, Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave is, surprisingly, tacking in a different direction. She no longer wants to talk in public about the "radical homosexual agenda" and its malicious impact on the American family. "I am running on a platform of security. Economic security. Border security. National security," the corn-husk blond Republican announced at the start of a candidate debate last week in Windsor.

This is a dramatic departure from the Musgrave of old, the Pentecostal mother of four who came to politics in 1990 as a school committee member determined to stamp out sex education. As a state legislator in Colorado, she campaigned constantly against gay marriage and attempted to deny benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees. In Congress, she has twice served as the chief sponsor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "As we face the issues we're facing today, I don't think there is anything more important than the marriage issue," she announced, just six weeks ago, at a Washington conference for values voters. "If we have gay marriage, our religious liberties are gone."


But in her home district, despite its conservative pedigree, a call to arms in the culture war no longer plays the way it once did. In recent weeks, she has backtracked on her Washington comments, saying they were taken out of context. At the same time, Musgrave's Democratic opponent, Angie Paccione, has gone on the offensive, despite polls that suggest about 60 percent of the district supports a constitutional ban on gay marriage. "Marilyn Musgrave is out of touch," Paccione says in a recent television advertisement: "She said that her gay-marriage agenda is the most important issue facing the United States of America Are you kidding me?"

The reason for this turnabout may signal a transformation of the national debate over homosexual relationships, which have been a defining issue in recent election cycles. Across the country, candidates who have built their careers fighting homosexual rights now find themselves on the losing side of the polls. In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who once compared gay sex to "man-on-dog" relations, appears sure to lose his campaign for reelection. In Ohio, the polls are equally grim for Ken Blackwell, a Republican candidate for governor, who once said gay marriage "defies barnyard logic." In Minnesota, Republican state Sen. Michele Bachmann, who called gay matrimony a "ticking time bomb" because "little children would be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal," is fighting a tight battle for an open Republican seat.

Homosexuality is not the primary issue in any of these races, but it is notable that all of the candidates have tamped down their anti-gay rhetoric as the election approaches. "If things go as they look like they might, in the heartland of America voters are going to reject candidates with extremist political positions," says Ted Trimpa, a gay political activist and attorney in Denver who is active in Colorado politics. "What that says to me is the pendulum has swung, that the luster of using us as a political toy has passed."

To be sure, the victory against anti-gay politics will be incremental at best. Eight states are poised to pass constitutional amendments that will ban gay marriage on Tuesday, and in the South and Midwest, a growing number of Democratic candidates have come out against gay marriage, most notably Tennessee Senate contender Harold Ford Jr. But as Musgrave's tight race in Colorado shows, there are clear crosscurrents that suggest Americans are no longer as interested in politicians who use homosexuality as a wedge issue. Recently, Dick Armey, the former GOP House majority leader, was quoted saying the religious right has become a group of "real nasty bullies" who have distracted from the conservative cause. A recent study by the Cato Institute argued that libertarian voters, who have sided with the Republicans in recent years, are increasingly defecting, in part because of the GOP's focus on social intolerance. "They have cooler feelings towards the Christian Coalition and warmer feelings towards gays and lesbians than do other voters," the Cato authors wrote about the libertarian vote, which is strong in the Rocky Mountain West.

The trend can be clearly seen in Colorado, home to James Dobson's Focus on the Family, where voters are increasingly turning to the Democratic Party and away from the divisive politics of homosexuality. "It has sort of worn itself out for some voters," said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University. "I think the Democrats' success is as much attributable to what the Republicans are doing than to what [Democrats] are doing themselves."

As in other states, Colorado voters are expected to pass a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage on Tuesday. But in a sign of the times, polls suggest voters might also pass a referendum that will give gays and lesbians all the domestic partnership rights of heterosexual marriage.


Until recently, Colorado has been a bulwark of socially conservative Republicanism. In 1992, a majority of Coloradans -- 54 percent -- passed Amendment 2, a state constitutional change that prohibited laws to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Though courts later threw out the law, Colorado was dubbed "the hate state" by pundits across the country. But since then, clear signs of moderation have swept the state. Last year, Republican Gov. Bill Owens vetoed legislation to protect gays and lesbians against employment discrimination on the grounds that it duplicated current law. Still, in his veto letter, he harshly chastised members of his own party who had likened homosexuality to an "abomination" and pedophilia. "The discourse fell far short of what I consider to be an acceptable standard worthy of our great state," Owens wrote. "It was, instead, marked by a coarseness and insensitivity that was simply wrong."

More recently, retiring Rep. Joel Hefley, a Republican from Colorado Springs, has refused to endorse his party's candidate to take his seat, in part because the candidate, Doug Lamborn, and his supporters attacked his primary opponent for supporting the "homosexual agenda," a tactic Hefley called "sleazy."

Meanwhile, Democrats have been making dramatic gains in the state by focusing on economic issues. They have been aided by the third-party campaign spending of several wealthy liberals, including Pat Stryker, an heir to a medical equipment fortune, and Tim Gill, an entrepreneur who founded the technology company Quark.

All of these trends have put pressure on Musgrave, who oversees the 4th Congressional District, most of which has not voted to elect a Democrat to Congress since the early 1970s. Stretching from the northern Rockies to Colorado's tumbleweed-strewn southeastern plains, the district is just slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, including everyone from Western cattle ranchers to mountain-bound retirees who regularly pass herds of bighorn sheep on their way to fill their prescriptions. First elected in 2002, Musgrave pulled through a costly reelection fight in 2004 against Stan Matsunaka, a local attorney, who began the attack against her for her focus on gay marriage. "I just kept calling her 'one-trick pony,'" explained Matsunaka. "We made a lot of headroom saying her heart wasn't in the district." Liberal and gay-friendly interest groups had also sunk nearly $2 million into the race, eating into Musgrave's natural advantage. Though President Bush won the district with 58 percent of the vote, Musgrave scored a far narrower 51-to-45 victory over Matsunaka.


Two years later, she is locked in a tossup race with Paccione, hurt in part by the national mood that is turning against Republicans -- President Bush's district approval rating, according to one poll, hovers at 40 percent. Apparently aware of her vulnerability, Musgrave has run a low-key race, eschewing media interviews, including a request from Salon, and holding only occasional public events. Instead of stumping for large crowds, she has relied on a series of ubiquitous television attack ads paid for by her considerable $2.9 million campaign war chest and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has committed about $1 million. The ads assault Paccione as a liberal on immigration and taxes, and repeatedly mention the fact that Paccione once filed for personal bankruptcy in the early 1990s.

Paccione, meanwhile, has run a spirited campaign, funded with nearly $2 million she has raised, that includes daily door-knocking and rallies. A former professional basketball player, Paccione grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of a black mother and an Italian father. At a recent campaign stop in Estes Park, a mountain community at the western edge of the district, she rallied a mostly retired audience by demonizing the record of her opponent and President Bush. "How will Colorado be different in two years?" Paccione asked, rhetorically. "We won't be embarrassed by our congresswoman."

She spoke while sitting before a large plate-glass window at a local restaurant that framed the snowcapped mountains and a small pond where mallards squabbled in the sun. A hundred yards away, a herd of about 50 mountain elk had taken up residence by the road amid the ponderosa pine. When asked, Paccione tries to downplay her own opposition to amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Yet, she compares the need for domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians to the 1960s struggle for civil rights: "My mom's black. My dad is white," she says. "It wasn't until 1967 that it was legal for them to be married across this land."


Though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has failed to invest heavily in the race, Paccione has been aided by two liberal independent groups, ProgressNow and the deceptively named Coloradans for Life. But the real X-factor in the race is a Reform Party candidate named Eric Eidsness, a registered Republican who abandoned an early plan to challenge Musgrave in the primary. In most polls, Eidsness scores in the mid-to-high single digits, likely dragging more support away from Paccione than Musgrave. A former naval officer who served in Vietnam, he presents himself as a common-sense alternative to the two political parties.

At the Windsor debate, he objected outright to the suggestion that the federal or state government should pass constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. "I will lock and load to fight a federal government [that] will interfere with my private family decision-making and personal decisions," he said, "whether it's two people who have the choice of partners, or the right of a woman to choose, even though I have a problem with the morality of abortion." He was expressing a Western ethos, born of the plains and taken to the mountains, a worldview that an increasing number of Coloradans appear to embrace. Statewide polling from 2004 to 2006 consistently shows that gay marriage is among the least important issues facing the state, pulling in just 1 or 2 percent of voters who say it is the most important issue.

When the question came to Musgrave, she was almost sheepish in her answer. "It will come as no surprise to anyone in the room that I support traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman," she said. "I think that is the ideal environment for children to be raised, and I think we ought to be very concerned about our children." Though she had been given a minute to respond, her answer was less than 30 seconds. She ceded the rest of her time, apparently eager to start talking about something else.


Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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