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Same-sex marriage debate could boost GOP '06 hopes

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If a majority in the Senate and the House approves the same-sex marriage amendment in the next session, it would go on the ballot in November 2006. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan )
If a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage makes it on the ballot next year, it could give a big boost to Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate. A group supporting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is gearing up for a major push to try to pass the ban in Minnesota. The group was behind that summit for several hundred religious leaders earlier this month, and plans to do petition drives and voter registration. They say the goal is to pass a ban on gay marriage, not necessarily to bring conservative voters to the polls. But in other states, GOP candidates have directly benefited from the same-sex marriage debate.

St. Paul, Minn. — Organizers of the recent summit say many of the pastors who attended signed pledges saying they would preach a sermon on the marriage amendment. The measure would amend Minnesota's constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

The pastors who signed the pledge also agreed to identify interested church members, and help with petition drives and voter registration. Chuck Darrell, the communications director for the group Minnesota for Marriage, says if supporters can get the amendment on the ballot next November, new voters will come to the polls to support it.

"There's a lot of evangelicals who just don't vote. So it's time to get them registered and get them out to vote," he said.

That's exactly what happened in Ohio last year. The group that backed the same-sex marriage ban - Citizens for Community Values - registered more than 50,000 voters in the state. The group's president, Phil Burress, says the amendment brought conservative voters to the polls, and may have been the deciding factor that helped President Bush carry Ohio, and in the process, win a second term.

Burress says the group hired Republican pollster Fred Steeper, whose poll predicted that the marriage amendment would help Bush in the key battleground state.

"The polling data said that 22 percent of the people would be more likely to vote if this was on the ballot, and 18 percent would vote for Bush and 4 percent would vote for Kerry, and the undecideds would break six-to-one for Bush. And predicted that it would help him by three to five percentage points," according to Burress.

Bush won Ohio by 2.1 percent. Burress notes that the marriage amendment passed with a much wider margin -- 62 percent to 38 percent -- and says it's clear that it's not just Republicans who support a ban on same-sex marriage.

Minnesota for Marriage says it is focused on the marriage amendment, not trying to elect Republicans. Chuck Darrell says the group isn't tied to the Republican Party.

"In fact, I think social conservatives are sometimes the red-headed stepchild of the Republican Party," Darrell said. "And so we have never been taking orders from anybody, whether it be in Washington or here in the state of Minnesota, as far as being so disingenuous to drum up support on marriage just simply to get Republicans elected."

While that may not be the group's goal, Ohio's election indicates it could be the outcome. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, is up for re-election next year. All 201 legislative seats will also be on the ballot.

But Darrell's group must first get the amendment through the Legislature. The measure has passed the Minnesota House the last two sessions, but has stalled in the Senate.

Minnesota for Marriage considers DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson one of the main roadblocks to bringing the bill up on the floor. Johnson is a Lutheran minister from Willmar, who says he's hearing from pastors who think the issue has become too political. Johnson says Republicans pushing for the ban should keep in mind that if the marriage amendment is on the November ballot, it could also help Democrats.

"It cuts both ways. Certainly, it energizes the conservative, fundamental base. I will tell you, it will energize the Paul Wellstone, Mark Dayton Democrat base like you've never seen. And not only in our state, but nationally as well," he said.

Johnson says there will be hearings on the matter, but he doesn't want the session to be dominated by a debate over same-sex marriage. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater, says if that's the case, Johnson should allow a floor vote on the bill on the first day of session.

"This will be the issue that will dominate until the clock strikes midnight at the last day of session. People will be down in force this year."

Bachmann says supporters of the amendment believe it's critical to get the measure on the 2006 ballot, because they fear court challenges to Minnesota's statute banning same-sex marriage. Otherwise, the issue would have to wait until 2008, the next statewide election year.

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