Same-sex marriage and the beginning and end of Minnesota politics: A tale of four circles


The best thing that could happen to the Republican Party of Minnesota (RPM) if not the national Republican Party, is for same-sex marriage to be legalized. Its legalization would remove from the agenda one that the Republicans are losing on, and one that is continuing to alienate them from younger millennial voters and moderates. Legalization of same-sex marriage would permit Republicans to move away from social issues and concentrate on their core economic and limited government message.

Assuming Monday’s passage of same-sex marriage by the Minnesota Senate the state will have come full circle four ways. The first circle to close is Baker v. Nelson, 291 Minn. 310, 191 N.W.2d 185 (1971). Minnesota is home to the first case in the nation adjudicating bans on same-sex marriage. In Baker at issue was whether a state law lacking an express statutory prohibition against same-sex marriages signaled a legislative intent to authorize such marriages. The Minnesota Supreme Court declared not, contending furthermore than the ban on same-sex marriage did not violate the First, Eighth, Ninth, or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota would thus overturn Baker, bringing to an end the first and original precedent standing against marriage equality.

The second circle to close involves Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act, and same-sex marriage. Bachman’s political career is intertwined with opposition to same-sex marriage. In 1997 the Minnesota legislature adopted Minn. Stat. § 517.01, Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) restricting marriage to that of couples of the opposite sex. DOMA and Baker should have been enough to persuade social conservatives that same-sex marriage would not become the law of the land in Minnesota. But it was not.

Bachmann’s 2000 run for the Minnesota Senate and successful defeat of a Republican moderate was premised as much upon opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage as it was on her anti-tax positions. Once elected she sponsored first in 2003 and then in 2005 state constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. Her fear? A Minnesota Supreme Court would overturn Baker and DOMA. Fear of same-sex marriage played well as a springboard and theme in her 2006 election to Congress in a deeply conservative Catholic district. Adoption of same-sex marriage in Minnesota, as well as the turning of the tide on the issue across the country, undercuts one of the defining themes of her political career. She may continue to get elected as defending an embattled minority, but she will look increasingly anachronistic and shrill, making it even more difficult for her to win re-election in 2014.

The third circle to close is on the RPM’s failed marriage amendment in 2012. While Bachmann was no longer in the Minnesota legislature, her opposition to same-sex marriage lived on in a political party. When the RPM was swept into control of the Minnesota Legislature in the 2010 elections the Republicans declared that the economy was job one. Speakers Zellers pronounced it was all about jobs and not social issues. Yet soon they strayed from that message. Minnesota witnessed a budget gridlock and state shutdown and the defining theme of Republican control became their overreach on social issues, including the elections and marriage amendments. Both went down to surprising defeats in 2012.

The reasons for the crash of the marriage amendment are many. It was about over-reach by Republicans and a misreading of their mandate (their mandate was actually more rooted in the 2010 opposition to Obama and the Democrats than in anything they offered). It was about the cynicism of some legislators saying that pushing the two amendments was a way to turn out their base in the 2012 elections, seeking to yet against rekindle the successful formula Karl Rove and the Republicans had used since 2004. It was almost about the failure to see how the issue of same-sex marriage was a defining issue for the Millennials and how public opinion had shifted. Republicans just did not see how the issue of same-sex marriage would counter-mobilize.

Going into the 2013 legislative session many Democrats and Republicans argued that the 2012 results were not a mandate to support same-sex marriage but instead simple opposition to a constitutional amendment against it. Some cautioned that pushing same-sex marriage would run the risk of DFL overreach, and initially Democratic leadership seemed to agree. But others contended that were it not for the issue of same-sex marriage the Democrats would not have won in 2012 and therefore they had to deliver on the issue less than alienate their base. The latter theory prevailed. But it did so in a self-fulfilling way. The momentum to oppose the marriage amendment was quickly turned around to support for same-sex marriage and quietly and slowly support for its legalization was built. Thus, the third circle–from a failed marriage amendment to legalization of same-sex marriage–also closes.

The last circle is the re-redefining the RPM. The DFL wins on this issue, but potentially not as big as the RPM could. DFLers were expected to push this issue and they delivered. That is good for them. But with the legalization of same-sex marriage the GOP loses a thorn it its side. This issue drove many away from their side. They had lost an entire generation of young people because of this issue. Take same-sex marriage off the issue and it opens up new possibilities for the RPM to redefine a base that is old. Of course the real danger for Republicans is that the social conservatives will seek retribution in the 2014 primaries and conventions, but what are they really able to accomplish? They can destroy the party with unproductive infighting, or they too can move on. For Republicans who voted to legalize same-sex marriage, if they can survive intraparty fights, they may emerge as the new voice of a redefined GOP in a post-same-sex marriage world that focuses more on economics and small government than social issues. This is where the party was a generation ago when the Arnie Carlsons and David Durenbergers were the face of the RPM.