Archive for the 'Gay marriage' Category

NY Senate caps flawed expectations and bizarre debate by downing gay marriage

The New York state Senate managed to table its dysfunction long enough today to finally vote on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Both sides appeared optimistic going into the debate, which suggested that someone was in for a bad surprise - and that’s exactly what happened. At the end of the day, the vote was not even close: 8 of the 32 Democratic state Senators voted against the measure while no Republicans came through. That added up to the bill’s rejection by a 38-24  - a crushing defeat for gay rights.

This has led to a fair amount of sarcasm regarding Democrats’ inability to count votes. Yet, that might be missing the point: Earlier in 2009, Governor David Paterson had pledged to get the bill voted on whether or not the votes were there. While it does appear the bill’s sponsors had been led to believe that fewer Democrats would oppose the bill and that a number of Republicans would cross over, I doubt anyone felt that confident as to how the bill would pan out.

The debate unfolded in bizarre conditions. While many of the bill’s proponents spoke at length about their vote, only one legislator said anything about against it - state Senator Ruben Diaz, a Democrat who is the chamber’s most dedicated foe of gay rights. That means not only that not a single Republican uttered a single word, but also that the Democratic state Senators who were undecided going in did not offer a word of explanation as to their vote.

That is particularly disconcerting for two who were once on the record as supporting marriage equality. First is state Senator Hiram Monserrate, who you might remember from his insanely unethical behavior during the summer’s legislative stalemate: He voted for gay marriage while in the state Assembly, but he chose to oppose it today. Perhaps this is payback for the leadership’s decision to create a panel to investigate what should be done with Monserrate following his October domestic violence conviction. Second is state Senator Joseph Addabbo, who picked-up a GOP-held seat last November after receiving heavy financial support from gay-rights groups as he promised to help them pass same-sex marriage.

One explanation for how decisive a margin the bill failed by is that there was an avalanche effect, whereby an early shocker in the alphabetical roll call (Democrat Joseph Addabbo voting ‘no’) led other publicly undecided senators who were preparing to support the bill to quickly back away. As such, Mike Signorile is hearing that as many as 5 Dems and 5 GOPers had pledged their support. I think this is partly right. The bill’s sponsors had long said that GOP votes might help them secure a majority, but only if Democrats could come close on their own; No Republican and no conservative Democrat would want to vote for this bill if it was going to fail anyway. Furthermore, the bottom line is that all 16 senators who were undecided as the roll call began ended up voting ‘no’.

But this certainly does not account for everything. For one, getting as many as 10 senators who are publicly undecided to vote in bloc is an inherently unstable proposition - and Democratic leaders must have known that.

Particularly bizarre is this video of Republican state Senator Jim Alesi. While he had been expected to vote “yes” but most whip-counters, Alesi voted “no” and that footage makes him look like he’s profoundly distraught as he prepares to announce his decision. While this could be due to the fact that he is trying to make up his mind, it looks to me that he had already settled before Addabbo’s vote, which came mere moments before Alesi’s. That a fellow GOP state Senator gives Alesi a pat just moments before he utters “no” suggests to me another explanation: There seems to have been more of an effort by GOP leaders to impose party discipline than had been anticipated.

Second, that this vote is occurring in the aftermath of NY-23’s special election is bound to have influenced the results. You surely remember that in the eyes of conservative activists Dede Scozzafava’s primary sin was to have voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the state Assembly; that helped fuel the fire against her and it contributed to organized national groups’ decision to move into the district. That must have frightened some senators into thinking a primary challenger could gain a lot of traction if they vote “yes;” in fact, state Senator Vincent Leibell (a Republican who was listed as undecided going into the vote) already does face a primary challenge from the right.

Proponents wanted to get people’s vote on the record so they would know who to target next year, but they surely were not expected this big a defeat. That probably severely Paterson’s hopes of getting some traction out of his decisive role in bringing the bill to the floor. Had it passed, he would have had a major issue to campaign on next year; even if it had narrowly gone down, he could have correctly pointed out that he exercised major leadership. Now, the most likely scenario is that progressive groups’ frustration towards Albany only grows - and with it their desire to get a new start with the entire state government.

What does all of this mean for the prospects of gay marriage going forward? Today’s vote obviously kills the bill’s prospects in this legislature, and whether it comes for a vote in the upcoming one will obviously depend on whether Democrats even keep control of the chamber: Republicans are looking to contest seats they lost in 2008, and it wouldn’t take them much to reverse their 32-30 deficit. On the other hand, one of the Democrats who voted no (Monserrate) is unlikely to survive next year’s Democratic primary and others could face challenges as well - not just because of this vote, but more generally because of the stunning mess that the chamber has been all year.

Interestingly, the same pattern played out this week as on November 3rd, when the blow of Maine reversing the same-sex marriage legislation was softened by a series of advances for gay rights. Now, New York’s vote coincided with Washington’s domestic partnership bill coming into effect, with California preparing to electing its first gay Speaker and with Georgia electing its first LGBT African-American legislator (Simone Bell) in a special election. Most significantly, the District of Columbia’s city council voted this week to legalize gay marriage.

The morning after

Election Day wasn’t kind to Democrats. By conquering the night’s two biggest prizes, Republicans broke the spell that kept them from winning nearly any competitive race since Election Night 2004.

Before we even ascribe any national meaning to these results, let’s make sure we state their primary consequence, for it is too often overlooked: Bob McDonnell’s triumph puts Virginia under complete Republican control for the next 4 years, while Chris Christie’s victory hands New Jersey’s executive branch to the GOP. If we forget why this might be important, we need not look any further than the current federal debates over the public option’s opt-in or opt-out mechanisms. This also strengthens VA Republicans hands in the next round of redistricting (NJ uses a bipartisan commission).

Yet, this is first and foremost a national blog, and the GOP’s victories have obvious resonance at the federal level. That Virginia’s gubernatorial race wasn’t considered competitive in the campaign’s final week shouldn’t obscure the fact that it was a far more telling test of the country’s political mood than New Jersey’s.

In the latter contest, the absolutely dominant factor was Corzine’s dismally low approval rating: It takes a series of unlikely miracles for an incumbent to win re-election when he has spent 10 months trailing massively. I spent most of the year insisting Corzine was toast. Only when Daggett jumped in the race did it become possible for the governor to prevail, since he no longer had to top 50%. Had Daggett received between 15% and 20%, a level he reached in mid-October polls, Corzine could have pulled an unlikely comeback. But at the end of the day, undecided voters and Daggett’s supporters decided that their desire to oust Corzine was stronger than their reluctance to vote for a Republican.

In that sense, yes, Christie’s victory reveals that there is a point at which New Jersey’s notoriously Democratic-leaning independents resign themselves to pulling the GOP lever.

The day Obama’s approval rating dips under 40%, he can worry about that - but by then, he’ll have enough problems that Corzine’s defeat won’t look like a very useful harbinger. A more useful parallel is Democratic incumbents up for re-election in 2010 who are facing dreadful approval ratings - the first of which is Harry Reid, whose numbers are no better and who sits in a less Democratic seat. Here again, we did not need the 2009 cycle to teach us that highly unpopular incumbents are in grave danger.

Virginia, however, provides a clearer warning to Democrats. In 2008, it proved one of the most receptive to their ticket: Not only did Barack Obama and Mark Warner win statewide (completing Tom Kaine and Jim Webb’s streak) but their party picked-up 3 House seats - one of them the only surprise Democratic takeover of the night. One year later, state Republicans enjoyed a banner night: They swept the state’s 3 statewide offices by big margins, including a truly massive 59% to 41% triumph for McDonnell, while expanding their legislative majority by picking-up 7 to 8 seats in the House of Delegates.

Such a result goes beyond one’s candidate weakness - though there is a lot to say about the many failures of Creigh Deeds’s campaign; it’s an across-the-board rebuke to the party that has led the state for 8 years. And here, there is no incumbent whose low approval rating can be held responsible: The gubernatorial contest was an open seat race between two candidates who faced each other in one of the state’s tightest elections just four years ago.

It does not take profound analysis to figure out what happened to explain this abrupt halt to Democrats’ Virginia progress. The party’s base did not show up: They did not care about these elections, and they stayed at home. That McDonnell managed to win Fairfax County (!), the state’s Democratic heart, tells us all we need to know about just how wide the enthusiasm differential was.

Some of that is undoubtedly due to Deeds, whose campaign badly miscalculated - over and over again. In what most everyone had figured out would be a tough cycle to turn out the Democratic base, Deeds started by shunning the president, chose to focus on rural issues rather than Northern Virginia, ran ads bashing national Democrats’ environmental policies and absurdly said he might opt out the state of a public option two weeks from Election Day. His strategy to get out the base entirely rested on attacking his opponent’s stance on social issues by harping on the master’s thesis rather than by giving the base any reason to be excited about Deeds himself.

But the motivational challenge preceded Deeds. He failed to remedy it - in fact, he probably made it worse - but he is not responsible for it. In New Jersey, Corzine also failed to get sufficiently high turnout from Democratic strongholds like Essex County and Hudson County. In both states, minority voters and young voters were MIA yesterday: Only 10% of Virginia’s electorate was made up of people between 18-29 yesterday, compared to 21% in 2008!

This is Democrats’ main challenge heading into 2010. Recreating the Obama coalition is most probably impossible in a non-presidential race, but that’s not even what we’re even talking about. If turnout levels among the Democratic base are anywhere near what they were in Virginia yesterday, the GOP will be in for a big night in 2010.

This is why I fail to see how yesterday’s results would justify conservative Democrats insisting that the party needs to move to the center.

For one, Virginia voters approved of Obama’s performance. Second, Deeds was too far to the right to build a winning electoral coalition as a Democrat. 2010 will not feature a presidential race, so it will be up to gubernatorial and Senate candidates to motivate voters. At the very least, Democrats should be able to speak the language of their base - something which will require them to point to recognizable accomplishments. Some conservative Democrats might think their re-election prospects will be hurt if health care reform passes, but it’s hard to see Blanche Lincoln or Tom Perriello winning re-election if they help block a bill.

More base neglect: National Democrats ignore Maine and NYC

While the White House will have to endure a few days of negative coverage due to yesterday’s gubernatorial results, the biggest hit to Obama’s legacy came in two races that progressives could have prevailed had the president taken an even minimal step - local activists were looking for any gesture - towards helping gay marriage in Maine and Bill Thompson in New York City.

Combined with the Democratic establishment’s utter failure to provide Thompson any help whatsoever, this is a further piece of evidence that there’s a disconnect between party officials and base voters - a disconnect that could have dire consequences in 2010.

In Maine, we knew that the same-sex marriage vote would be tight - though, just as in California, gay rights activists were optimistic they could finally score a victory at the ballot box, which makes yesterday’s loss a particularly stinging setback. Unlike its defense for its inaction on DADT or for its judicial defense on DOMA, the White House cannot say that it’s prioritizing other issues right now and will get to gay rights eventually. The moment is past, and it cannot be walked back.

What’s particularly striking about Maine’s vote is that it came on a night that was unusually kind to gay rights. Chapel Hill elected a rare openly gay mayor - a first in North Carolina; in Houston, an openly lesbian woman came out on top of the mayoral race’s first round; in Kalamazoo, MI, voters banned discrimination based on sexual orientation; and in Washington State, RI-71, which expands domestic partnerships, is passing 51% to 49% with half of the vote counted and King County underreporting. If RI-71 passes, it would be one of the first statewide wins for gay right activists.

In NYC, it is true that polls were finding Bloomberg leading by wide margins - nothing resembling his shockingly narrow 5% victory. (I am ashamed to even treat that farce as a legitimate election, considering that Bloomberg spent between $180 and $252 of his own money per vote; that is all the more grotesque considering Bloomberg knew Thompson had nothing resembling that kind of money.) And yet, there were clear warning signs: Back in September, I argued that the unexpected ouster of councilmen who’d voted to overturn the term-limit laws suggests there’s an anger among the New York electorate that could pose a major problem for Bloomberg.

Yesterday’s results proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that a severe backlash was indeed brewing. How New York’s Democratic officials (few of whom did anything to help Thompson, starting with City Council President Christine Quinn, who played a prominent role in helping Bloomberg this year) fail to pick-up tremors of that on the ground when it had been brewing for months is beyond.

While this contest was supposed to be uneventful, Democrats are now left wondering what might have been: What if the media had treated the race a bit more competitively? What if Democratic officials like Quinn had done anything to unseat Bloomberg? What if Obama had done more than have Gibbs give the most pathetic and tepid of endorsements, one that didn’t even mention Thompson by name? What if donors had given a bit more money, just enough to ensure he would not be outspent by a margin hovering around 15:1?

I keep hearing variations of “If only Anthony Weiner had ran” today. In fact, that’s become the White House’s defense: “Maybe Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg,” an aide told Politico today. Thompson came within 5% with little money and little help; why would have been better? Thompson isn’t some sort of clown: He’s the city comptroller, and a former member of the Board of Education. Why did the Democratic establishment not take Thompson seriously? I do think that’s a question the party needs to ask itself.

NY-23 ensures the GOP cannot point to 2009 as a sign of rebirth

Republicans were hoping to use yesterday’s votes to prove they were heading towards big gains in 2010. They’ve been insisting for months that they’ll pick-up a large number of seats next year (some are saying north of 30 House seats), and they’ve been so confident that all they need to do is field candidates to have Democratic incumbents fall that the NRCC has been remarkably successful at recruiting contenders against entrenched incumbents.

Had New Jersey and Virginia been the only high-profile races on the ballots yesterday, the GOP would have succeeded in making their confidence conventional wisdom - despite all the caveats to a national reading I listed above. But the special election in NY-23 ruined their plans: Democrats picked-up a House seat in a region they had not represented in 150 years.

While that election came with its own set of bizarre circumstances that make it tough to use as a harbinger of 2010 races, it makes it much harder for Republicans to claim a red tsunami is coming if they just lost a House district they should have been able to keep - especially when it comes in the heels of an unlikely Democratic save in NY-20 back in March. The fact that NY-23 had reverted back to being a two-way race in the final days of the campaign make it harder for the GOP to argue they only lost because they were divided: Owens got 49% of the vote, that’s more than Al Gore or John Kerry received in the district.

At the end of the night, Republicans might have seized two governorships, but Nancy Pelosi got two new congressmen, since John Garamendi was easily elected in the special election in CA-10. At a practical level, that provides her two additional votes on matters like the public option, which both Owens and Garamendi support. At the level of the chamber’s control, yesterday’s results solidify Democrats’ majority: They’ll now need to pick-up 41 seats in 2010 to regain the House.

Of course, NY-23 was first and foremost a test for the GOP’s internal rift - and here, I am hard pressed to tell you what the results might mean considering most everyone in the Republican Party is likely to feel emboldened by the results.

For conservatives, the special election marked one of the first times they so clearly triumphed over the establishment; that Scozzafava was a centrist to quite an uncommon degree undoubtedly helped them, but the national movement’s willingness to get whole heartedly involved in an upstate New York contest certainly puts politicians like Charlie Crist on notice.

On the other hand, moderate Republicans and establishment types like Newt Gingrich will point to Hoffman’s final defeat as proof that the party will drive itself into a wall if it moves further to the right; while it’s very unfair to compare Marco Rubio to Hoffman, contenders like him will have to argue harder for their electability than if Hoffman had pulled it off last night.

For now, the mood of the GOP electorate should allow Sarah Palin and the Club for Growth to continue putting their mark on the party: John Cornyn just announced the NRSC would not spend any money on any contested Senate primaries, and given the pressure they’ll face he’ll probably have to hold himself to that promise. But neither side is likely to yield an inch and establishment contenders will surely be very well financed. As such, this intra-GOP rift, which will be one of the next year’s most fascinating dynamics. Will conservatives be successful at beating establishment-backed candidates? Will Hoffman’s example fuel third-party bids nationwide?

Election Night: McDonnell & Christie victorious, Dems pick-up NY-23 & keep CA-10, Maine rejects gay marriage

Recap: With very few states still counting votes, it’s time to attempt a little recap of the night’s results. The night’s first theme, which is sure to dictate coverage, was gubernatorial races: the GOP decisively picked-up two large states. one, defended another. A second theme was House races: Democrats picked-up one, defended another. On these ones, more extensive analysis will have to wait until tomorrow.

A third theme were down-ballot races: Democrats got a major victory in Charlotte, but they suffered important defeats in Virginia’s House of Delegates, in Stamford, in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, in Westchester County. While NYC wasn’t expected to be tight (I had repeatedly warned that we might see a repeat of September’s term-limit backlash), the small margin by which Bloomberg prevailed is bound to add the race to Democrats’ disappointment list, leaving Thompson’s camp wondering what might have been had Thompson been taken more seriously.

A final theme was gay rights. On the one hand, this has been as friendly a night for gay rights as any Election Night I can think of: Chapel Hill elected a openly gay mayor, an openly lesbian candidate came out on top in Houston’s mayoral race (the contest goes to a runoff), Kalamazoo, MI adopted a discrimination ban, and a referendum to ratify a domestic partnership law is ahead in Washington (it’s still too close to call). On the other hand, there’s Maine, where gay marriage suffered a fairly decisive defeat. This will fuel a lot of anger among the gay rights community towards the White House, which resisted pleas that the president get involved in even a minimal way. On this one, Obama can’t say he’ll get to it later, since the moment might well have already passed.

12:50am: AP calls the “yes” victorious in the Maine referendum, so Maine overturned a law legalizing gay marriage - a stinging loss for gay rights advocates.

12:35am: Republicans win a number of close mayoral races, starting with Stamford’s (previously held by a Democrat who was not running for re-election) and St. Petersburg’s. Also, a GOP candidate came out of nowhere to win the position of Westchester County Executive in the NYC suburbs. In Nassau County, potential statewide candidate Tom Suozzi is holding on by just 400 votes with 10 precincts left - a totally unexpected result.

Democrats did get some good down-ballot news from New Jersey, however: Republicans were hoping to post some meaningful gains in the state Assembly, but they were kept their pick-up was kept a minimal level (possibly as low as 1).

12:25am: California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi is elected to Congress: CA-10 is called in his favor. This was of course entirely expected, but given the bad news Democrats received elsewhere tonight, it’s surely good for them to be able to point to these two House special elections. If nothing else, Nancy Pelosi can count on two more congressmen in the coming debate on health care.

12:20am: This time, it’s official: Owens wins NY-23, Hoffman concedes and Democrats increase their House majority. It looked quasi-certain that he could hold on, but this will spare us having to spend days following absentee ballot counting and recount proceedings. Back in mid-October, I wrote that New York’s Republican infighting “is all the more tragic for Republicans because a Democratic victory in NY-23 would make it tough for the GOP to point to New Jersey and Virginia’s governorships (assuming they pick-up both) as a harbinger of a coming red wave.” And that’s exactly what happened.

12:05am: Now, Fox News is calling NY-23 for Owens. OpenLeft makes an excellent point about absentees in this district: Most were mailed in before Scozzafava withdrew, so that very seriously limits the margin Hoffman can hope to gain among absentees. Meanwhile, there’s been almost no new counting for 45 minutes in California and Washington. Remember that a lot of the voting takes place via mail in those states, so it could take days before we get anything approaching final results - even if the contests aren’t competitive.

midnight: CNN notes that Bloomberg spent $170 per vote. I’m speechless. That’s all the more grotesque since he knew just how under-financed Thompson would be.

11:55pm: McDonnell won Fairfax County! Could there be bigger evidence that Virginia’s Democratic base did not go to the polls at all; the same is true in New Jersey, but to a far lesser degree. I don’t see anything as shocking in New Jersey returns as McDonnell’s victory in Fairfax. As such, I hardly think the night’s results will be taken as a sign the public option has to be killed or health care reform has to be abandoned (if anything, House Democrats look like they’re going to gain two new members who are in favor of the public option), but just as further evidence that a bill better pass Congress if Democrats want to avoid big losses next year.

11:50pm: What Maine voters might take away, Washington voters might give: RI-71, which would create an extensive domestic partnership system, is currently ahead 52% to 48% with 43% reporting. Looks like that will be another nail biter though; the state’s other big initiatives, a fiscally conservative TABOR-style proposal, is going down by a more decisive margin.

11:40pm: It’s still looking tough for gay marriage in Maine, as the 12,000 vote margin is holding with 65% of precincts reporting (live results are available here). Something I failed to mention now: The anti-tax initiative went down to a big defeat.

11:35pm: Are we back to 2000? Races keep being uncalled, first Bloomberg’s and now Owens’s. NBC had called it for Owens, but is now also saying that the Democrat is leading. Here’s why that might be: 10,000 absentee ballots have yet to be counted, which is far larger than Owens’s 2,600 victory (with 78% precincts reporting). In better news for Democrats, it looks like there won’t be any big surprise in CA-10: John Garamendi is ahead 56% to 40% with 22% reporting.

11:25pm: Gay marriage is not in the best of shapes in Maine: The “yes” has opened a 11,000 vote lead. (On the other hand, voters in Kalamazoo, MI voted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation… and we’re now waiting for results out of Washington.)

11:22pm: NY-23 is being called for Bill Owens, so Democrats pick-up a House seat in NY-23. A huge upset both by the standards of the campaign’s beginning (Scozzafava was favored) and of the final days (it looked like Hoffman would benefit from Scozzafava’s withdrawal). While this is bound to relieve some Republicans who’re afraid of a proliferation of third-party bids, it’s also a huge relief for Democrats who will have something to spin: For all the Republican confidence that they’ll post big gains in 2010, they’ve lost two seats since the beginning of the year.

11:20pm: It looks like most of the remaining votes in NY-23 are from a Democratic county, so the race looks good for Owens (he leads by 4% with 74% reporting). In Maine, however, supporters of the ‘no’ are now mentioning the possibility of a recount, which is never a good sign when 46% of the precincts are still out (a 6,000 vote difference with 56% reporting).

11:15pm: The GOP has secured a majority on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, as the race was just called for Joan Orie Melvin. Not the highest-profile race, but an important one nonetheless. Combine this with other low profile results I have failed to mention - Michigan Republicans picked-up a state Senate seat in a special election - and there aren’t a lot of good news for Democrats tonight. Picking-up Charlotte’s mayorship can only get them so far.

11:10pm: Maybe I should stop looking at Maine for a while, since the lead is quite literally changing every time I press refresh. The “yes” now leading by 2,000 votes with 49% reporting. In NY-23, we are getting near the finish line (71% reporting), with Owens still ahead 49% to 45%. One election that is getting away from Democrats is the race for Pennsylvania Justice; after trailing big early, the Republican has been increasing her lead (85% are now reporting).

11:00pm: The polls have now also closed in CA-10, but eyes are more than ever turned on New York and Maine. The “no” and the “yes” are exchanging leads every time new votes are released. The “no” is currently leading by 2000 votes, with 41% of precincts reporting. In NY-23, there’s been little movement, with Owens ahead 49% to 46% (68% reporting). The county-by-county situation is getting a bit more clearer, and it looks like Hoffman is underperforming in counties he needed to do well in.

10:55pm: Mike Bloomberg is once again called the winner in New York City. As you might have gathered from prior updates, I think this “election” was a disgrace and a farce. It looks like the final margin will settle around 4%.

10:50pm: For those who are interested in New Jersey even though it’s been called, an interesting tidbit: Corzine is ahead in Bergen County with 91% reporting, which could mean that Christie becomes the first Republican to win statewide without carrying the state’s most populous county. That goes to show that Corzine’s defeat is first and foremost due to insufficient turnout in his base counties (Essex and Hudson, for instance).

10:45pm: Votes are coming in quickly in NY-23: We are already at 63% reporting, and Owens is holding on to his 49% to 45% lead; with Scozzafava at 5%, it looks like her supporters did follow her endorsement after all. But it’s still way too early to say how this might end. As for Maine, the “yes” is now ahead by… 37 votes (37% reporting).

10:40pm: It looks like Bloomberg will win a third-term (he’s leading by 3% with 89% of precincts reporting). But Thompson got little media coverage, little Democratic involvement, less than token Obama support, no contributions - any of these factors had changed, and we might be talking about Mayor Bill Thompson right now. I can find no other reason to the fact that no one treated Thompson seriously than Bloomberg’s money.

10:35pm: Maine will be a roller coaster, and the “no” is back up - this time by a more decisive 4,000 votes. 32% are reporting, so there’s still a long way to go.

10:30: I haven’t been spending a lot of time covering NY-23, though that’s arguably now Democrats last chance to spin the night as a good one. With 39% reporting, Owens is holding on to his 50% to 45% lead - the margins have been remarkably consistent all night. There are some big variations per county in this district, but I haven’t come across a county-by-county breakdown for now.

10:25pm: With 28% reporting in Maine, the “yes” is now ahead; I am unable to figure out where votes are coming from, nor why the state is so much slower at counting votes. Let’s follow that up with bad for Democrats: Virginia Republicans are having a big night, as they’ve picked up 7 seats in the House of Delegates (with an 8th potentially coming) while Bloomberg is slightly pulling away in New York - to the extent that we call a 2% victory pulling away.

10:20pm: Christie’s lead is down to 4,7%, but now that Hudson and Mercer are nearly done reporting there’s aren’t that many more obvious places from which Corzine can get votes. So all eyes now on New York’s two races (whatever happens in NYC, it was silly to call it: goes to show how Bloomberg’s 120 millions convinced everyone there was nothing to see) and Maine, where we now have a dead heat: The ‘no’ leads by just 75 votes with 26% reporting.

10:10pm: New Jersey’s Governor’s race is called for Chris Christie by the AP. This was the night’s biggest prize, and it’s the one that will dominate headlines tomorrow. Corzine mounted a very strong comeback, but he was counting on Chris Daggett siphoning votes away from Christie. That did not happen, as Daggett’s voters chose to go to Christie in the final hours. With 74% reporting, Christie is up 49,7% to 44%.

10:05pm: Owens is leading by 7% with 15% in. Wherever these voters are coming from, we already have an answer to one of our questions: Very few voters chose to stick with Scozzafava, since she’s only getting 5%. Might they have listened to her plea that they vote for Owens? Two races in which progressives’ margin is declining: The ‘NO’ is now leading by only 2% in Maine (though counting is still surprisingly slow), while Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race is now a dead heat.

10:02pm: The New York City mayoral race is uncalled! As I noted two minutes ago, the race was tied with a third of the vote… this is fairly incredible. Might the Working Families Party and the anti-term limit repeal backlash actually cause a truly humongous upset? If Bloomberg wins narrowly, his massive overspending will look all the worse.

10pm: Burlington County went for Obama by 20%, but Christie is winning by 6% with 30% reporting… Obviously not the kind of result Democrats are hoping for right now. On the other hand, something strange might be happening in New York City? With 34% reporting, Bloomberg is only up by 1,500 votes (that’s 0,4%). I imagine outlets based themselves on exit polls, but 34% is quite a substantial share of the vote.

9:55pm: Anthony Foxx will be Charlotte’s next Mayor, the first African-American to lead the city in 22 years and the first Democrat in 16 years. This is Democrats’ first big win of the night, and while it’s clearly not on the same level as New Jersey’s governorship, it’s an important position to hold in North Carolina politics.

9:52pm: Corzine closes gap to 6%, but turnout looks to have been lower than he was hoping in places Northern Jersey counties like Essex and Hudson. But all is not lost for Democrats, since Bill Owen is leading by 11% with a non-negligeable 8% of precincts reporting. Also, one state in which Democrats appear to have had a good night is New Hampshire, though I don’t have much detail about that.

9:50pm: Maine is counting far slower than other states, and is still at 17% reporting: The “no” is holding on 52% to 48%, though the state capitol (Augusta) voted to overturn the law.

9:45pm: As a commenter very rightly pointed out, the numbers that were being reported out of Sussex County were wrong. They’ve now been reversed in Christie’s favor, which helps him increase his lead: It’s 7% all over again, with 58% reporting. Also: Bergen County has just massively reported (79%), and Christie is ahead in that key county (49% to 48%). In recent history, a Republican has never won statewide without winning Bergen.

9:42pm: Bloomberg bought himself won a third-term. No miracle for Bill Thompson, who never managed to get himself in the race. As for NY-23, I haven’t forgotten about it; it’s just that results are very slow (still 1% reporting).

9:40pm: We now have more than 53% of New Jersey reporting, and Corzine is up at 44,7%. He’s got to be disappointed at the small margin he’s getting out of Camden County, however. The fact of the matter is that some of Corzine’s strongest counties (Hudson, Essex) are also reporting faster than the statewide average, albeit less than Monmouth and Ocean. Also: Three counties have yet to report anything. One is small and the two others (Mercer and Burlington) gave Obama big victories.

9:30pm: Let’s take a look at non-NJ and non-ME races: Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has won a fifth-term, Foxx is still ahead by 3,000 votes in Charlotte with 12% remaining, the Democrat is leading Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race by 10% (with 30% remaining) and the GOP has scored its second pick-up in Virginia’s House of Delegates, though Democrats are holding on to some vulnerable seats as well.

9:25pm: We now have 44% of New Jersey reporting, and the margin has tightened: 49% to 44%. It’s in great part due to Sussex County starting and finishing its counting, and going to Corzine 64% to 26%. But it’s also now Ocean’s turn to reach 91% reporting: Christie’s entire lead right now is based on the margins he build up in Ocean and Monmouth, which is to say Corzine has room to close the gap with places like Essex. That greatly depends on turnout, which isn’t something we can judge just yet.

9:20pm: Foxx is now up by 2,000, which could end up being significant if Charlotte’s the highest-profile victory for Democrats… Another good news for progressives: The “no” is increasing its lead in Maine, 53% to 47%.

9:15pm: Monmouth is now almost done counting (91%) and Ocean is getting there (73%). The rest of the state is at 29%. Corzine will have the rest of the night to close a gap that isn’t that wide (51% to 43%).

9:10pm: Charlotte’s mayoral race is a nail biter, with Democrat Foxx back on top by 120 votes (66% are reporting). Another tight race at the moment is developing in Maine, with the “no” leading 51% to 49% with 7% reporting; I’m unable to figure out where those voters are coming from. And another race that I forgot to mention earlier that is worth keeping an eye on is an race to be on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court; the contest will determine the Court’s majority, which is important for all sorts of reasons, some of them electoral (the Court plays in role in redistricting).

9:05pm: Daggett keeps going down, now at 5.5%. It will be quite remarkable if Corzine pulls it off with Daggett that low, though he’s closing the margin: We’re now at 49,6% to 44% with 28% reporting. Also: Deeds is winning Fairfax by a single percentage point right now. Talk about Democrats just not caring at all.

9:01: Polls have closed in NY-23!

9:00pm: The good news for Corzine: The GOP’s biggest counties are Monmouth & Ocean, and they’re reporting at 41% and 51%, respectively so that explains Christie’s big early lead. The bad news for Corzine: I’d read that Christie would need to clear 60% in those counties, and right now he’s at 66% and 62%, respectively.

8:55pm: Republican John Lassiter has taken a narrow lead in Charlotte’s mayoral race. As for New Jersey, GOP stronghold Ocean County is over-reporting for now, which explains part of Christie’s 52% to 42% lead with 14% reporting. In Maine, the “no” has taken back the lead with 5% reporting: 55% to 45%.

8:50pm: Small illustration of Deeds’s underperforming in the counties he should be running big margins in: Obama won Arlington 73% to 27%; Deeds, 66%-34%. In Portsmouth, 70%-30% while Deeds is 60% to 40%. In New Jersey, we are now at 12% reporting with Christie leading by 9% and Daggett down to 6%…

8:45pm: As of 8:45pm, Virginia’s Board of Election says McDonnell leading 85% to 15% with 66% reporting. I don’t think it was quite that bad for Deeds but… In New Jersey, Republican counties are reporting for now, which allows Christie to take a 55% to 38% lead with 4% reporting. In Maine, my sense is that progressives seem cautiously optimistic looking at early results.

8:40pm: We’re still waiting for count to heat up in New Jersey and Maine. The only thing we can say is that early indications that Daggett is falling short of his goal are still looking true, though he might hover somewhere around 8%; that would require Corzine to receive at least 46% of the vote to clinch victory. Based on all the polling evidence, it’s hard to see him rise that high - unless his ground operation was really stronger than Christie’s.

8:30pm: Very early results show the “no” and Christie leading, but we’re talking about very early numbers. In Virginia, Democrats are avoiding a catastrophe for now in House of Delegates races but it could still come.

8:25pm: No results yet in Maine, but an almost definitive results from Chapel Hill: Mark Kleinschmidt (the de facto Democrat in a nonpartisan race) is close to winning the mayorship, which would make him a rare openly gay official in North Carolina. In Virginia, McDonnell is still above 60% with 56% of the vote reporting; the margin should decrease once Fairfax reports, but this should be a blowout.

8:15pm: GOP sweeps Virginia: Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General races called for Bolling and Cuccinelli. Except to hear these names in 4 years, when McDonell can’t run for re-election (Cuccinelli has a particularly conservative profile). In New Jersey, exit polls haven’t budged: tight race, with Daggett weaker than polls had predicted (that makes a Corzine victory more difficult); I haven’t seen anything about Maine.

8:10pm: We’re already getting some chaos out of upstate New York (NY-20 repeat, here we come). The results could be delayed in some counties due to machine malfunctions. (Polls don’t close before 9pm in New York.)

8:00pm: Virginia got done just in time for New Jersey and Maine to come in focus. Polls just closed in both states.

7:55pm: Virginia’s gubernatorial race has been called for McDonnell (at least by ABC News). Given that he leads 62% to 37% with a third of the vote in, I don’t see any reason to disagree so the GOP has as was expected regained the governorship for the first time in 8 years, breaking a long streak of Democratic victories in the Old Dominion. The GOP has also scored its first pick-up in the House of Delegates. (Democrats are worried Deeds’s weakness will cost them many seats tonight.)

7:45pm: New Jersey exit poll has Christie leading by 25% among independents; that’s not insurmountable for Corzine, but it’d be very tough, especially since Daggett’s looks to be a non-factor even among this group. In Virginia, we’re now at 20% reporting and McDonnell is still leading 64% to 35%. Republicans are leading just as big in the Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor race. It’s going to be a red sweep in Virginia.

7:35pm: With 12% of precincts reporting in Virginia, McDonnell is up 63% to 36%; most counties that are reporting are in conservative territory, but there’s nothing for now to indicate Deeds should have any hope. Another sign of the turnout gap between the two parties’ base: Exit polls project that just 15% of the electorate is African-American; in 2008, it was 20%.

7:20pm: The 18-29 group made up 21% of Virginia’s electorate in 2008; this year, they make up only 10%! Talk about a generational turnout gap. If this holds in Maine, gay marriage is toast. The good news for Democrats is that, if a majority of Virginia voters approve of Obama’s performance, it might mean the partisan turnout gap is not as huge as some polls had predicted. In other exit poll information, McDonnell is crushing Deeds among independents - 63% to 36%.

7:10pm: These are preliminary exit polls, so take them with huge grain of salt, but here it goes: We could be in for a long night in New Jersey, with Corzine and Daggett tied at 47% and Daggett well under even his lowest poll levels. In Virginia, McDonnell is ahead by 10% - a big margin which would be a relief for down-ballot Democrats. Once again, these numbers are preliminary exit polls, so they could be widely off, but that’s all we’ve got for now (well, that’s not true: with 2 precincts reporting, McDonnell leads 70% to 30%).

Original post: It’s 7pm ET, which means polls have closed in Virginia. Of course, the Old Dominion is hosting the least competitive of the day’s elections, so it will still take a while before we get any interesting information.

We do have some turnout tidbits. In NY-23, an early report suggests that voting is far heavier in conservative precincts than it is in Owens’s home base - good news for Republicans. In Maine, turnout is reportedly far heavier than expected - good news for gay marriage. Also, early exit polls find that Barack Obama’s approval rating is above 50% in both Virginia and New Jersey (51% and 57%, respectively); that will make it hard for commentators to blame Deeds and Corzine’s potential defeats on the president.

Final polls show GOP dominant in Virginia, gay marriage endangered by generational gap

Gay marriage endangered by prospect of generational turnout gap

Besides New Jersey and New York, about which I’ll write later today, tomorrow’s most suspenseful vote is undoubtedly occurring in Maine: Will voters vote to repeal the law legalizing gay marriage? It last week’s Pan American SMS gave the “no” its largest lead yet (53% to 42%), two surveys released since have found a tighter race. For Research 2000, voters are split 48% (no) to 47% (yes); PPP, meanwhile, has the “yes” leading 51% to 47%.

PPP’s poll is not the first to find gay marriage opponents ahead, but it is the first to show the “yes” tops 50% - signaling that we might be in a repeat of California’s vote. And while Democrats are less mobilized than they were in 2008, the partisan turnout gap isn’t big enough to explain why progressives are in danger of losing a battle many thought would be easier to win than in the Golden State: Respondents to the PPP poll voted for Obama 54% to 40%, compared to the president’s 18% victory in November 2008.

More than a partisan turnout gap, what is threatening gay marriage is a generational turnout gap. 14% of voters in 2008 were over 65; PPP finds that 20% of those voting tomorrow should be that old. Since that age group is preparing to vote “yes” 59% to 40%, we don’t have to look much further to explain why gay marriage might go down. Similarly, PPP finds only 12% of respondents are between 18 and 29, compared to 17% in 2008.

A major caveat: Research 2000, whose results find gay marriage stronger by a non-negligeable 5%, finds the electorate has a very different age composition - and slightly more Democrats. One reason to think PPP’s age composition might be off is that the poll was conducted over Halloween week-end, but PPP’s prior poll (which found a tie at 48%) had an even wider age gap.

We can only conclude by the same cliche I used with the New Jersey race: It all comes down to turnout - and since the gay marriage vote is the highest profile issue on Maine’s ballot, turnout is even harderfor pollsters to predict here than it is in states that are holding more typical partisan contests.

Elsewhere, there’s suspense in NC; not so much in VA and NYC

PPP, which is based in North Carolina, finds a dead heat in two mayoral races. In Charlotte, which has been in GOP hands for two decades, Republican John Lassiter leads Democrat Anthony Foxx 50% to 46%. In Chapel Hill, the race is going down the wire between Matt Czajkowski and Mark Kleinschmidt, who could become a rare openly gay official in the state; the race is nonpartisan, but Kleinschmidt is a registered Democrat while Czajkowski is a registered Republican.

That I am listing North Carolina before Virginia’s gubernatorial race is a testament to how dominant Bill McDonnell’s leads have become. All the latest polls find a big double-digit margin that threatens to take down Democrats up-and-down the ballot:McDonnell leads 56% to 42% in PPP, 58% to 40% in SUSA, which has long been cruel to state Democrats, and 53% to 41% in Mason-Dixon. SUSA finds Republicans leading by just as big in the two other statewide races.

Finally, Mike Bloomberg continues to calmly coast towards a third term in NYC thanks to his absurd overspending. He leads 53% to 38% in Marist, 50% to 38% in Quinnipiac and 53% to 42% in SUSA; an internal poll released by Thompson last week that showed him trailing by single-digits. Given Thompson’s inability to create any buzz around a possible upset, it’s hard to see how tomorrow could yield anything than Bloomberg’s re-election. I will say, however, that we were all surprised back in September at the WFP’s organizational strength and at the intensity of the anti-term limit backlash that unseated 4 incumbent councilmen; at the very least, the margin could be closer than what polls are indicating.

Poll watch: Corzine’s rise, gay rights’ strong support and Specter with dismal re-elect

6 days to go: Corzine grabs significant lead while Deeds sinks

If PPP and Rasmussen had brought some worrisome news to Jon Corzine’s camp yesterday, today’s Quinnipiac poll all but takes cares of their worries. The reputable pollster, which has been polling the contest monthly since August 2008, finds Corzine ahead for the first time since last November - and we’re not talking about a tiny edge: Corzine leads 43% to 38%, outside of the poll’s margin of error. Chris Daggett is at 13%.

If we forget about the recent Suffolk poll’s bizarre results, this is the largest lead Corzine has enjoyed since the first week of January. What is just as important as the margin of his advantage is the level of support he reaches: Corzine is finally able to rise above the 42% ceiling he’s been stuck under for months, with Rasmussen and Quinnipiac now both showing him at 43%. That doesn’t look like much but it should be enough for him to clinch victory as long as Daggett stays in the 12%-14% range.

One caveat: Quinnipiac’s poll was conducted from the 20th to the 26th, so it’s more dated than the two surveys released yesterday (Rasmussen’s was conducted on the 26th only, PPP’s from the 23rd to the 26th). That period corresponds to the intensification of Chris Christie’s attacks against Daggett, and both PPP and Rasmussen found that those attacks were succeeding in hurting the independent and by extension helping the Republican. Quinnipiac has Daggett still more popular than not (21-16), so we shall see what polls say in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Virginia polls are all finding the same result: Bill McDonnell leads Creigh Deeds by double-digits. The SUSA poll that had him up 19% two weeks ago looked like an outlier at first, but it doesn’t look far-fetched anymore. At this point, I’ll do little else than relay the latest numbers. First, Rasmussen has McDonnell up 54% to 41%; the Republican’s favorability rating is so high (62/30) you wouldn’t guess he just went through a heated campaign. Second, Virginia Commonwealth University has McDonnell crushing Deeds, 54% to 36%.

6 days to go, and good news for gay rights in Maine and Washington

Most surveys of Maine’ have found the slightest of edges for the “no” - certainly nothing large enough to reassure gay rights defenders that same-sex marriage will be upheld. (Many California polls had Prop 8 failing in the run-up to the 2008 vote.) But a poll released a few days ago by Pan Atlantic SMS found the largest lead yet for the pro-gay marriage vote: 53% to 42%. That’s a lot of undecided voters for gay marriage opponents to convince, especially given that those who make up their mind at the last minute tend to break towards the “no” in referendum votes.

But that rule of thumb is not that useful for high-profile issues like this one. While it is a cliche to say that an election comes down to turnout, this is one contest in which it is no overstatement: This referendum is the highest-profile vote on Maine’s ballot, so it’s the main issue that will drive voters to the polls. So which group is most motivated by gay marriage will have an outsized importance - and this is one metric on which social conservatives have tended to have an edge.

Another important gay rights vote is occurring in Washington State, which is set to vote on a referendum to establish expanded domestic partnerships (R-71). Two new surveys released this week find the “yes” in the lead: The University of Washington has it easily passing (57% to 38%) while SUSA finds a tighter margin (50% to 43%, with the 40% of respondents who’ve already voted approving partnerships 53% to 42%). Here again, the gay rights-position is favored going into next week’s vote, but referendums are hard enough to poll that this could go both ways.

Note that the White House has ignored gay rights activists’ pleas to take any stance on either states’ votes - let alone an active one.

2010: Worrisome numbers for Specter and Strickland

By now, we are used to seeing Arlen Specter suffering from ugly numbers but it’s hard to overstate how dismal it is for such a longtime incumbent’s re-elect to stand at 23%; 66% of respondents in a new Franklin & Marshall poll say it’s time for something new. His favorability rating (28/46) is barely better.

It’s only because his rival are so little-known (only 26% have an opinion of Toomey, 16% of Sestak) that he manages to still lead direct match-ups. And given the wide name recognition gap, his 33-31 edge over Toomey and his 30-18 lead over Sestak isn’t impressive, especially when you consider that Sestak has closed the gap by 14% since F&M’s prior poll. Sestak does trail Toomey 28% to 20%, but that survey has such a huge number of undecided respondents that it’s not worth discussing much. (Don’t forget that two mid-October polls had Sestak over-performing Specter in the general election.)

Another state, another endangered incumbent: A University of Cincinnati poll finds Ohio Governor Ted Strickland holding on to a 49% to 46% edge against former Rep. John Kasich; among all registered voters, the lead is smaller still (48-47). We haven’t heard that much about this contest, mostly because there hasn’t been much primary or recruitment drama on the side of the challenging party (Kasich signaled he’d get in the race early, and his hold on the nomination hasn’t been contested) but it’s sure to be one of the year’s highest-stake battles.

Polls find Deeds and Corzine once again exchanging momentum, Lincoln tanking in Arkansas

Every few days, I am changing my mind as to which of the two governorships that are currently being contested Democrats have a better chance of defending. For a while in early September, Creigh Deeds looked so far gone that Jon Corzine’s fortunes looked stronger; then, the former managed to get himself back in the running and recent developments were getting me ready to settle on Virginia. But the narrative has changed once more: Now, it looks that Jon Corzine is in far better shape than Creigh Deeds heading into the campaigns’ 5 final weeks.

This is due to 3 polls released over the past 24 hours. The first is SUSA’s survey finding Bob McDonnell up 14%. I wrote about it last night, raising obvious questions as to whether the poll will turn out to be an outlier. As I pointed out, that poll was the only one since the master’s thesis story broke to have McDonnell leading by more than 7%. Well, we did not have to wait for long to get confirmation that SUSA was on to something: Rasmussen’s latest poll has the Republican leading 51% to 42%.

While Rasmussen is often criticized for finding numbers that look too friendly to the GOP, pointing that out cannot account for the trendline: Two weeks ago, Rasmussen found Deeds within the MoE, trailing by only 2% - a survey launched the narrative of the Democrat’s comeback. What’s perhaps worst for Deeds is that Rasmussen’s poll leaves him no clear path to close the gap: 51% of respondents (an impressive share) say the story of McDonnell’s master thesis is important in terms of their November vote. And yet, despite his remarkable success at making this a huge campaign story, Deeds trails by 9%! What more can he hope to do?

In New Jersey, by contrast, a Quinnipiac poll finds encouraging news for Corzine has received in months: The governor trails 43% to 39% - the smallest deficit he has faced in a Quinnipiac poll since November 2008. His favorability rating remains truly dismal (34/56) but Christie is clearly dipping. Consider this: Excluding Neighborhood Research polls (which are finding a bizarrely high level of undecideds) and Democracy Corps poll (which have had far more friendly results for Corzine than other pollsters), the Republican had not dipped as low as 43% in any poll since April!

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the biggest reason I have trouble envisioning Democrats keeping New Jersey is that Corzine is stuck in the 30s range - and that is again the case in this poll. But here’s the second reason Quinnipiac’s survey is good news for the governor: Chris Daggett reaches 12%, a 3% boost over Quinnipiac’s previous poll. The higher Daggett reaches, the more conceivable it is for Corzine to claim victory with just 39-42% of the vote.

Arkansas: Lincoln trails 4 Republican rivals

Keeping in mind that not all pick-ups are equal in terms of altering the balance of power - if Blanche Lincoln were to lose next year, it wouldn’t prove a particularly consequential blow to her party’s agenda considering her actions this year - let’s turn to a new Rasmussen poll that confirms that we should put her on the list of highly vulnerable incumbents. She trails state Senator Gilbert Baker 47% to 39%, state Senator Kim Hendren 44% to 41%, businessman Tom Cox 43% to 40% and businessman Chris Coleman 43% to 41%.

Any senator who trails all challengers irrespective of their profile, name recognition or experience is clearly facing a massive re-election problem. An important note: Once again, I do not for the life of me understand where Rasmussen gets its name recognition numbers: I refuse to believe that more than 60% of Arkansas have an opinion on Cox, Coleman and Baker. Last month, PPP found that 23% of voters had an opinion of Coleman and 22% of Baker. That sounds much more realistic.

Yet, it apparently has little effect on the match-up numbers: PPP also had Coleman and Baker leading, thus confirming Rasmussen’s finding that Lincoln is so vulnerable as to trail little-known opponents. On the other hand, a mid-September Research 2000 poll found far sunnier numbers for the incumbent, though she was still vulnerable. More polls will be needed to figure out the extent of Lincoln’s vulnerability.

Arizona: Second poll in two weeks finds that Goddard is front-runner

A race we have talked relatively little about is shaping up to be one of the Democrats’ top pick-up opportunities thanks to Attorney General Goddard’s popularity: In a new Rasmussen poll, his 54/38 favorability rating is far superior to Governor Jan Brewer’s 42/54 and former Governor Fife Symington’s 36/54. He leads 42% to 35% against Brewer and 44% to 37% against Symington. Those margins are actually smaller than those found by PPP last week, but they are an undeniable sign of strength for a challenger.

Brewer and Symington are arguably weaker candidates than other potential Republican nominees; Brewer because she has failed to impose herself since being elevated governor in early 2009, Symington because of the corruption scandal that forced him out in the 1990s. But for either of them to be defeated would mean a lower-profile Republican nominee, so Goddard’s name recognition and personal popularity would keep him the front-runner even if the GOP was to get rid of Brewer and Symington.

Maine: Gay marriage finally enjoys lead

Two weeks ago, the first and only poll of Maine’s Question 1 found worrisome news for gay marriage proponents: The “Yes” had a narrow lead. But a new poll conducted by Democracy Corps has far more encouraging numbers: 50% of respondents say they will oppose repealing the gay marriage law while 41% say they’ll vote for it.

The survey’s primary purpose seems to have been to gauge Maine voters’ feelings about their two senators in the context of the health care debate. And it does not look like progressive groups have been successful at turning this blue state against Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins 54% say they’ll probably or definitely vote for Collins when she runs for re-election (versus 32%) while 60% say the same of Snowe. Matched-up with a generic Democrat, Snowe leads 56% to 28%. Since I think few people who follow electoral politics expect Snowe and Collins to ever face much of a challenge - if a sitting congressman could not endanger the weaker of the two in 2008, how could Democrats succeed? - these numbers won’t come as much of a surprise.

Polls finds gay marriage struggling in ME, Deeds inching up and Burr up double-digit

It’s been flowing under the radar, but Maine’s gay marriage vote is one of this fall’s important elections. And based on the first poll of the race, just released by Research 2000, my tentative prediction that gay rights proponents could have an easier time than they did in CA looks flawed: In an echo to last year’s Prop 8 polls, neither side reaches 50% - and those looking to outlaw same-sex marriage (the “yes” vote) narrowly edge those looking to uphold it (the “no” vote), 48% to 46%.

The rule of thumb when it comes to referendums is that the “yes” vote is in trouble if it does not an early lead, as undecided voters tend to disproportionately vote “no.” But it’s unlikely that will apply to this election because gay marriage is not the type of complex issue voters tend to be confused about. With margins this close, it’s going to come down to turnout - and it’s hard to predict who might show up in an off-year. We’ll see whether conservatives are as successful in mobilizing their nationwide base as they were in California, and whether gay marriage proponents can get their act together earlier than they did for Prop 8.

The poll also tests various combinations for Maine’s open Governor’s race, still very much in flux. Democrats have the early edge: All 3 of potential candidates tested (state Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, Rep. Mike Michaud and former Speaker and former AG Steve Rowe) have heavy leads against Republicans Matt Jacobson and Peter Mills. Yet, Businessman Les Otten is more competitive, as he trails Mitchell and Michaud by single-digits and leads Rowe by 1%. Substantial name recognition differentials make it hard to read much into the poll, however, so take it as nothing more than an early indicator.

Deeds enjoys some movement, Corzine stuck under 40%

6 more weeks to go in November’s two gubernatorial elections, and the week’s four polls show the Democratic nominees inching upwards. Yet, they are trailing outside of the margin of error in all but one of the surveys. Believe it or not, that one poll comes to us from Rasmussen.

That’s right, the pollster that has found the worst numbers for Democrats this year is the first one in months to find Deeds within the MoE in Virginia: The Democrat trails 48% to 46%, a clear improvement from a 9% early September deficit. Research 2000 threw some cold water on Rasmussen’s comeback narrative by finding McDonnell leading 50% to 43%; that’s little movement from the Republican’s 8% lead in August.

McDonnell repeatedly led by 14-15% between late July and late August; but the past three polls have shown him leading by 2%, 7% and 5%. One obvious factor here is The WaPo’s story on his master’s thesis. Whether Democrats can hold up this momentum depends on whether they can keep social issues as the campaign’s dominant theme (did I just write that?). Republicans are hoping to switch the attention back to economic issues thanks to this, but McDonnell’s decision to air a TV ad responding to the attacks on his social conservatism suggests he is feeling the heat.

In NJ, Corzine continues to trail by significant margin, though the margin is somewhat tightening. PPP has him down 44% to 35%, with Daggett at 13%; that’s better than the 50% to 36% he faced in PPP’s July poll. Monmouth has Corzine down 47% to 39%; that’s also better than Christie’s 50% to 36% lead in Monmouth’s previous poll. Sure, Corzine might have transformed a double-digit lead into a single-digit one. But the bottom line is that he remains stuck under 40%, has shown absolutely no ability to break out of that range and he is only gaining because Christie’s level of support is dipping - just look at PPP’s trendline.

Burr’s results are a bit stronger but the bottom line is the same: A lead, under 50%

Over the past 6 months, only PPP has been testing Senator Richard Burr’s vulnerability so it is nice to see another pollster confirm what we have been seeing in PPP surveys: Rasmussen finds that Burr is vulnerable but, unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, he starts with a clear lead that will not be easy for Democrats to overcome. He leads Secretary of State Elaine Marshall 48% to 38% and has bigger leads against Kenneth Lewis (48% to 32%) and Rep. Bob Etheridge (48% to 34%).

PPP’s poll also had Burr leading Marshall by 10%. The main difference between the two pollsters is that there are far less undecided voters. That’s surprising, as the defining feature of the NC race has been the finding that few people have a strong opinion of Burr, whose approval rating has been hovering in the 30s; that’s been a finding of PPP, but also of Research 2000 and Civitas. Yet, Rasmussen has the senator enjoying a 58-26 favorability rating. That suggests to me that the questioning might have strongly pushed undecideds, which is typically advantageous to an incumbent.

For Gillibrand, higher notoriety does not equal electoral comfort

New York’s newest senator might not longer have much to worry about in the Democratic primary and she continues to increase her name recognition, but she is not out of trouble in just yet: This week’s Marist poll has her trailing in a hypothetical race against former Governor George Pataki, 48% to 44%. That’s an 8% gain for the Republican, who trailed by 4% in July. Fortunately for Democrats, Pataki has yet to show any sign that he is interested in running for Senate. Interestingly, he would crush former Governor Eliot Spitzer 58% to 33%. (Who could have predicted we’d ever see such a poll just 2 years ago?)

Stability in the Governor’s race. In the primary, Paterson would lose the to Cuomo by a stunning 70% to 23%. In the general, Cuomo leads Giuliani 53% to 43% and he demolishes Lazio 71% to 21%; Giuliani crushes Paterson 60% to 34% (the first poll in which he reaches the 60% mark) but Paterson ties Lazio. I wonder if I have ever seen a race with this much disparity between various general election match-ups: 4 trial heats find the GOP trailing by 50%, trailing by 10%, tied and leading by 26%! And just consider that, when matched-up with Lazio, Cuomo is running an unfathomable 50% better than Paterson.

Placed on Maine’s fall ballot, gay marriage catches break in Iowa

Only once has a referendum seeking to ban same-sex marriage gone down to defeat - and even it proved to be a short-lived victory for gay-right supporters: Two years after Arizona rejected Proposition 107, social conservatives got the issue laced on the 2008 ballot - and this time Proposition 102 was adopted. Yet, in only one of these referenda were voters asked to outlaw legalized gay marriage - a far different proposition that resulted in the highest-profile campaign of them all and just a narrow victory for the “Yes.”

We now have the same situation in another state: Maine voters will be asked whether they want to repeal the state law legalizing gay marriage - and they’ll have to answer in just two months!

Maine legalized same-sex marriage a few months ago, but state law provides a 90-day window for opponents of any bill to force a referendum by collecting the requisite number of signatures. Today, Governor John Baldacci announced that enough signatures had been gathered that LD 1020 will be on the ballot on November 2, 2009.

The stakes might not be as high as California’s Prop 8, but they will be significant nonetheless. While Arizona voters once refused to ban recognition of same-sex unions, never have voters directly approved gay marriage. If Maine finally does, it should change the terms of the debate just as much as when Vermont became the first state to legalize gay marriage without being prompted to do so by a court order.

And there is every reason to believe gay rights could finally win the day come November. While Maine is not necessarily more liberal than California, it is less associated with social conservatism than some parts of the Golden State. Furthermore, minority voters’ hostility towards gay marriage muddied how much we could read into California’s blue state-status, but the situation is different in Maine. Finally, expect the state’s establishment to be far more active in defending gay marriage than California’s.

After all, politicians had little to do with gay marriage in California: It had been legalized by a judicial decision, put on the ballot by activist groups and the Mormon Church. While supposedly opposed to Prop 8, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was largely AWOL during the campaign. In Maine, by contrast, voters overturning LD 1020 would be a slap to Democrats, who passed it, and to Baldacci, who signed it. In a statement today, Baldacci declared that he “fully supports” the legislation.

(There was a chance that signatures would not be collected on time to force a referendum this November and that the vote would only have been held in June 2010 (primary day) or November 2010. I’ll leave it for you to decide which side will be helped by the compressed time frame. On the one hand, this fall’s turnout should be lower, which could favor those who are most motivated by the issue - generally social conservatives. On the other hand, we saw in California that gay marriage opponents gained steam as the campaign raged on, as they were able to use superior fundraising and dubious arguments to convince voters who were previously apathetic.)

In preparing for November, Maine activists should get some comfort from the results of a special election that took place yesterday in Iowa.

While it is Iowa’s Supreme Court rather than its legislature that legalized gay marriage last spring, state Democrats have been surprisingly adamant in opposing any effort to overturn that decision. As a result, the National Organization for Marriage has launched the Reclaim Iowa project, aimed at targeting Democratic state legislators and replacing them with Republicans opposed to gay rights. Their first priority was to win House District 90, left vacant by the Democratic incumbent’s move to the Department of Agriculture.

The group spent $90,000 in support of Republican Stephen Burgmeier. That might be pocket change on the scale of a presidential race or a statewide election, but it is obviously a very substantial sum at such a local level. And as the Iowa Independent explains, the district has enough conservative Democrats that Burgmeier could very well have been successful had there been a backlash against Iowa Democrats because of gay marriage.

At the end of the day, Democrat Curt Hanson won by 100 votes (1.35%) out of 9,000 cast. That’s a narrow margin, to be sure, but it is also a clear disappointment for Republicans given the depth of the National Organization for Marriage’s involvement.

The contest carried symbolic value - a way to gauge voter sentiment on gay marriage - as well as practical consequences. First, Republicans will need to reclaim both chambers to launch any effort towards overturning gay marriage; this defeat leaves them facing a 56-44 in the state House and an even larger 32-18 hole in the state Senate. Second, a Burgmeier victory might have made state Democrats nervous about how their position will impact their 2010 prospects; it will now be easier for the Democratic leadership to keep the party unified.

Gay marriage has been thrown in the mix of a farcical special session of NY Senate

If you thought New York politics were bizarre over the past two weeks, you have seen nothing yet since all hell could break loose over the next next few hours.

As of last Wednesday, it appeared that the situation had stabilized. Sure, we still did not know who was in control of the chamber, but it at least seemed that there would be no more betrayals and party switches. But as the two parties failed to strike any kind of power-sharing deal, it became obvious that something had to change: Dozens of bills needed to insure the continuity of state and local government were not being dealt with because the Senate had not been in session since the June 8th coup. (Democrats were not entering the chamber, denying Republicans the quorum needed to proceed.)

Monday was the state Senate’s last regularly scheduled day, so David Paterson logically convened a special session the following day. The advantage of a special session is that the Governor gets to decide what bills will be considered, removing one of the major objects of dispute - control over the agenda. But expecting this twist to resolve the situation was clearly asking too much of the Senators.

For one, the question of who was going to chair the session and control the gavel remained, as both sides are still claiming that they are legally in the majority. The Democrats’ solution to this dilemma: Enter the chamber three hours before the session is set to start, lock themselves and install one of their own on the dais. When Republicans were later allowed in, they were unable to get up there.

Fine, you might say, at least all 62 Senators were in the same room, so should that not give us the first quorum in 15 days and allow matters to proceed. Well, not exactly:

The two sides, like feuding junior high schoolers refusing to acknowledge each other, began holding separate legislative sessions at the same time. Side by side, the parties, each asserting that it rightfully controls the Senate, talked and sometimes shouted over one another, gaveling through votes that are certain to be disputed. There were two Senate presidents, two gavels, two sets of bills being voted on.

The result: 14 bills passed by Democrats, 85 passed by Republicans. What’s most absurd about the situation is that it is now completely unclear whether any of these bills have been legally passed. The Governor’s office is now reviewing the legality any of this to determine whether Paterson should sign these bills. Just imagine how easy it could be for a citizen who wants to challenge one of these laws to argue that they were not passed following proper protocol, or to invoke the dispute over which side holds the majority to claim that the legislation was approved by a party that had unlawfully seized control of the chamber.

(Making matters more confusing is that most of these bills were approved by unanimous consent, meaning that they were recorded as being approved by all Senators present even if only half of the chamber was paying attention. In other words, legislation that was being considered only by the 31 Democrats or only by the 31 Republicans might be marked as passing on a 62-0 vote. How to deal with that?)

And we will be back at it today because, well, yesterday was not enough theater and Paterson has called for more. But this afternoon’s special session could be even more explosive because the Governor has put gay marriage at the top of the agenda. As you surely remember, Democrats have in their midst a state Senator that had threatened to leave the party late last year if the leadership did not commit not to bring up same-sex marriage over the course of this legislature. As expected, Ruben Diaz Sr. was incensed by Paterson’s (expected) move, so much so that he launched in a series of cryptic statements:

Tomorrow we will have a good time.  Maybe I’m not upset. Maybe I solve the whole the problem tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow we come to an agreement and decide who’s really in control…

Diaz was then asked whether he was considering joining Republicans:

Maybe tomorrow…Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not saying anything…Who is asking me that? I don’t know. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Tomorrow is always uncertain. Tomorrow may never come.

Well, we know that tomorrow did come. But we still don’t know what tomorrow will bring, nor what Diaz will do, nor whether he will be upset. Needless to say, the GOP would be delighted to take Diaz since that would give them a 32-30 majority.

And yet, there is something incoherent in Diaz’s threats: Had he joined the GOP back in January, it would have ensured that gay marrige does not come up for a vote since a Republican majority would not have brought it up. But this is now out of the control of either party’s legislative leadership: Whether the GOP (or ‘coalition’) caucus has 30, 31 or 32 members this afternoon, it won’t allow them to block Paterson’s decision that gay marriage is the first issue they’ll have to vote on.

And so, on top of all this drama, there might be a vote on gay marriage in the coming hours. While most head counts put opponents ahead, but gay-right groups have been insisting that they have enough Republican Senators voting “yes” that it will compensate the defection of Democrats like Diaz. In short, conventional wisdom is that the “no” has the edge but the vote could go either way. (Remember, it looked fairly certain that New Hampshire state Senate did not have the votes to pass such a bill before a last minute reversal by a reluctant Democrat.)

But what I don’t understand is why gay marriage proponents would want the bill to come up for a vote today, especially if they believe they have the votes to pass it. Odds are that today’s scenario will be the same as yesterday, with the two parties holding parallel sessions and refusing to engage each other. If gay marriage legislation comes up for a vote in such conditions, will both parties vote on it?

What if one side passes it while the other ignores the issue; can Paterson sign the bill? What if the Democratic side of the room pass it and the Republican side rejects it? This is a sure recipe to have same-sex marriage end up in court, being decided on grounds that have nothing to do with gay rights and everything to do with arcane legislative rules.

As Obama (kind of) extends benefits, sanctity of marriage-protector Ensign admits affair

There’s really not much to say about John Ensign’s admission yesterday that he had an 7-month affair with a campaign staffer. The contrast with the Senator’s past statements - his 1998 call for Bill Clinton to resign, his suggesting that Larry Craig should do as much in 2008 - speaks for itself.

Sex scandals play way too important a role in American politics, but when we are taking about a politician who chastises others and is worried enough about the threat posed by same-sex couples to vote in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, we aren’t talking about sex but hypocrisy. Taking others’ right of privacy hostage to your political ambition looks all the more worse when you take no care to exemplify the character traits you seek in others.

Don’t expect any dramatic consequences

It only took Ensign 24 hours to resign from the GOP’s Senate leadership (he chaired the Republican Policy Committee) but don’t expect much else to occur. Ensign is not up for re-election until 2012; by then, the memory of this episode will have long faded, just as no one in Louisiana seems to remember much about the D.C. Madam scandal. As for an Ensign resignation, don’t even think about it.

Of course, the situation could change if there is more to the story than the Senator admitted - some reports are suggesting that blackmail might have been involved. But the bottom-line is that no one is alleging that Ensign did anything illegal - and even if he had his odds would be better than even. Vitter, who recognized being involved with prostitutes, and Craig, who plead guilty to lewd behavior, managed to weather the storm; so why should Ensign have to resign? [Update: There could be more of a scandal than it first appeared after all.]

Sure, Clinton was impeached, John Edwards lost all political clout and Eliot Spitzer resigned within 48 hours, but Democrats are typically held to different standards. When a Republican is part of a sex scandal, Democrats are not that interested while conservative lawmakers refrain from going after a member of their own party (unless we are talking about a gay tryst, of course, as was revealed by the difference between the reaction to the Vitter and Craig scandals).

When the scandal concerns a Democrat, however, Republicans don’t hold back while Democrats are too scared to point out that a legal sexual affair between consenting adults has nothing to do with anything. In the 1998 debate in which Ensign called for Clinton’s resignation, his opponent Harry Reid called the president’s affair “immoral” and sidestepped questions as to how he would vote on impeachment proceedings.

I’m not even sure Ensign’s admission will have that much influence on his apparent ambitions to run for president in 2012. The campaign won’t seriously start until the spring of 2011. That gives him plenty of time to recover some cover with the right, just as Vitter managed to become a darling of social conservatives over the past few years. The end of John McCain’s first marriage was not that pretty a story, Rudy Giuliani (whose personal life is far more appropriate to tabloid headlines to Ensign’s) long led national polls and potential 2012 contender Newt Gingrich’s family life is still more colorful than the Nevada Senator’s.

The one clear consequence I see to this affair is that the rise of conservative darling John Thune will be facilitated by Ensign’s resignation from the leadership position. Thune now looks likely to become the new Policy Committee Chairman, giving him an even bigger platform from which to position himself for a future presidential campaign.

What about that group that really threaten the sanctity of marriage?

It is somewhat ironic that Ensign’s press conference came on the day we learned that Barack Obama would be generous enough to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. And by benefits, I do not mean health care coverage or retirement pensions. After all, it’s not like such benefits are provided in major corporations or that gay marriage or civil unions are recognized in 12 states. So why go fast? Is it not enough to throw gay-right groups the bone of relocation assistance for them to stay put until June 25th’s gay pride DNC fundraiser?

Well, apparently not. “Welcome to 1999,” quipped Alan Van Capelle, the Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda. The details that later trickled out decreased the memo’s significance even further: Officials essentially admitted that the memo was a way to salvage the DNC fundraiser and it became clear that the benefits we are talking about are not that extensive and this is only an administrative memo that will expire once Obama leaves office.

The Obama administration insists that it has not given up on expanding gay rights and that it will stay true to its promises - repealing DOMA, the HIV travel ban, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, counting gay couples in the census, providing meaningful benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, passing hate crime legislation. Be patient, they say, chastising gay-right groups for wanting more so early in the term.

Yet, anger is not stemming from White House inaction but from the fact that they are being active in hurting gay rights. Last week’s Justice Department brief defending DOMA was quite a slap in the face for gay-right groups. Here was a Democratic administration filing a legal document comparing same-sex partnerships to incestuous and underage marriages in order to defend a law Obama called “abhorrent” on the trail.

To the extent that one cares about threats to the sanctity of marriage, which looks like the most relevant storyline: The Obama Administration guarding us against the slippery slope from homosexuality to incest or a socially conservative Senator admitting to an affair.

Update: The Obama Administration’s decision to defend the constitutionality DOMA is all the more disappointing with the news that Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided not to defend the constitutionality of Prop 8 in federal court.

As same-sex marriage rapidly advances, GOP isn’t quite on the same page

In a good mood ever since he became the ranking Republican of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions is feeling magnanimous. “I don’t think a person who acknowledges that they have gay tendencies is disqualified per se for the job [of Justice],” he said today on MSNBC.

All those who bear the burden of their “gay tendencies” and who entertain, sometimes, in the dead of the night, sinful thoughts about a person of the same sex can rejoice: They can now confess their secret without fear and Sessions will not hold this admission against them when judging their ability to perform the duties of a Supreme Court Justice.

Jokes aside, Sessions’s use of the expression “gay tendencies” and of the qualifier “per se” are obviously not innocent. Over the past several years (especially in the aftermath of Lawrence v. Texas), many in the political right no longer focus on denying the right to engage in same-sex practices in the private realm; instead, they concentrate on homosexuality insofar as it seeks to be recognized in the public sphere, as a public category that should be protected by the state. Thus, they focus on opposing policies like the recognition of same-sex couples through civil unions, gay marriage or the inclusion of sexual orientation in discrimination laws.

From Sessions’s perspective, then, there is a politically relevant difference between people who entertain homosexual “tendencies” and people who identify as gay and are in committed relationship that they do not fear to mention in public. In this context, Sessions’s “per se” takes a clearer meaning as well: To say that someone’s “gay tendencies” are not a disqualifying factor per se suggests that it could become one if combined with other factors - perhaps if the person is in a same-sex relationship or if he or she has supported gay-rights litigation.

These are not hypothetical questions: Stanford’s Kathleen Sullivan and Pam Karlan, who are both openly gay, are mentioned as possible picks.

Other Republican Senators have apparently no interest in subtlety and they think more should be done than attack homosexuality insofar as it seeks to be recognized publicly. Cue in South Dakota John Thune, who has chosen to embrace such a primitive homophobia as to explicitly say that he would not accept an openly gay Justice. “I know the administration is being pushed, but I think it would be a bridge too far right now,” he said. “It seems to me this first pick is going to be a kind of important one, and my hope is that he’ll play it a little more down the middle. A lot of people would react very negatively.”

Thune’s willingness to make this case so explicitly is fairly stunning, and it puts in sharper relief why legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act might be needed. Even Family Research Council Tony Perkins did not dare be as explicit as Thune. In an interview with Politico, Perkins’s goal was clearly the same as Thune’s (warn Obama that sexual orientation will be an issue) but he chose phrasing that was less openly discriminatory: Instead of arguing that the country was not ready to accept a gay Justice, he asserted that Obama was not ready for one. “I think that would be a bridge too far for him to be honest because that would enter a whole new element into the debate that I don’t think he’s ready for,” Perkins said. “A parallel to that would be Bill Clinton’s gays in the military battle, which really hurt his agenda from that point forward.”

If Obama does choose to nominate a gay Justice, many on the right are likely to be more subtle than Thune. And they have a ready way to express their uneasiness: For much of the past week, the GOP has expressed concern that liberal judges could let their personal circumstances influence legal decisions and they have seized on Obama’s statement that he is looking for a pick with “empathy.” If they want to oppose an openly gay nominee, many conservatives are thus likely to suggest that her “lifestyle” will unduly influence her job; in other words, that the pick’s sexual orientation will make her a sure vote to legalize gay marriage.

This argument essentially comes to arguing that only straight white men should be appointed to the court. An African-American Justice could let his “personal” condition interfere with his legal thinking on affirmative action; a woman’s thinking on abortion could be influenced by her real-life experiences, and so on. In fact, the right is starting to voice a similar argument against Sonia Sotomayor, explicitly raising the issue of affirmative action.

While the American public is now supportive enough of minority and women’s rights that the right would not dare make such arguments too explicit, gay rights remain controversial enough that politicians like Sessions can make sexual orientation a stand-in for radicalism.

While Republicans are explicitly opposing someone’s nomination based on sexual orientation, the grounds of the debate are rapidly shifting. On the morning of November 5th, 2008, Proposition 8’s victory seemed to strike a damaging blow to the gay rights movement; six months later, the landscape is unrecognizable.

After Iowa and Vermont, it was Maine’s turn to legalize same-sex marriage yesterday when John Baldacci backed a bill adopted by the legislature with unexpected speed. He thus became the first Governor to sign a gay-marriage bill without being forced to do so by courts, a milestone that deals a further blow to the argument that gay marriage is only advanced by people who have not been unelected. Gay-rights proponents can point to Vermont and to Maine as states in which elected and accountable politicians were not afraid to support marriage equality.

(Maine’s legislation might find its way to voters. In the state, no bill become law before opponents have had a 90-day window to amass 50,000 signatures and force a referendum. It is looking somewhat likely that gay-marriage opponents will be able to collect the signatures, which could make Maine the second state in the country in which voters are called to overturn gay marriage. It looks like a vote could not take place before June 2010 or November 2010 rather than November 2009; that could be good news for gay-rights activists, as the lower turnout of an off-year election would favor those who are most motivated by the issue - generally social conservatives.)

New Hampshire could soon join the list, as the state legislature adopted a bill legalizing gay marriage yesterday. The bill will now work its way to Governor John Lynch, who has expressed his opposition but has stopped short of saying that he will veto the bill. You might remember Lynch from the Judd Gregg drama that unfolded in February; despite being a Democrat, Lynch made it clear that he would appoint a Republican to Gregg’s Senate seat. If Lynch vetoes the legislation, the state legislature would not have the votes to overturn his decision; if he signs it or lets it become law without signing it, New Hampshire would become the sixth state to allow gay marriage.

And the debate also looks to be revived in California. After Proposition 8’s passage, gay rights advocates were not expected to push for another statewide vote anytime soon to give the electorate time to evolve enough for a victory to be certain. But Equality California, a prominent organization, seems to have decided that the momentum has shifted so much in the past six month that there is no reason to wait: The group has just announced that it will start collecting signatures to put an initiative legalizing gay marriage on the ballot in 2010.

IA, NY and NJ: The latest on the gay marriage debate

While the gay marriage debate was focused on California in 2008, a number of fronts are playing out simultaneously this year.

Iowa: Preventing a backlash

First, same-sex marriage was legalized in Vermont and Iowa, and there is little opponents can do in either state. But that does not mean that Iowa’s gay rights activists are not taking whatever threat exists seriously.

Since the state Senate’s Democratic leadership has made it clear that no marriage amendment will pass under their watch, Republicans need to take control of the state legislature next year to have a shot at launching the amendment process. Such a GOP takeover is highly unlikely given the state’s current political dynamics; only if Republicans create enough outrage around gay marriage can they hope to surf the backlash all the way to a majority.

This is an important point to make. In California, voters could oppose gay marriage directly through Proposition 8. In Iowa, conservative need to take an indirect route and convince voters that they are so enraged by the legalization of gay marriage that they should express their anger by voting for Republican legislators - an indirect expression of disapproval that can only work if Iowans are truly thinking about gay marriage in 19 months. (How likely is it that they will?)

Just as the conservatives’ objective is tougher to pull off in Iowa, so is the goal of gay-right groups easier. In California, voters needed to be convinced to support same-sex marriage and thus vote against Prop 8. In Iowa, gay-rights activists need to ensure that voters’ opposition is not so intense as to dominate the political debate and allow Republicans to ride into office. The former goal requires persuasion, the latter only soothing.

These distinctions are crucial to keep in mind as we observe how the Iowa debate is unfolding. The latest effort by gay right groups is the following one-minute ad that is currently playing in five Iowa media markets:

Keep in mind that, even if Republicans regain a legislative majority in 2010, they would still voters to approve an amendment banning gay marriage - and they could not put that on the ballot before 2013 at the earliest. Given how much the situation has changed over the past four years, that delay leaves plenty of time for a deluge of such ads to change the political dynamic in Iowa.

New York: Counting the votes

As I wrote on Monday, Governor David Paterson is pushing New York’s state legislature to vote on a bill legalizing gay marriage. This is creating some tension within the Democratic Party, as Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith is refusing to bring the bill up for a vote unless he is sure it can pass. Today, Newsday reported that Paterson is backing down and will defer to Smith’s decision. But all of this begs the question: Is there any way a majority of the state Senate will vote in favor of gay marriage?

The Albany Project conducted some detailed whip counting and found the following breakdown (I have slightly tweaked it based on the latest updates):

  • In favor: 22 state Senators, including only 1 Republican (James Alesi, who represents Western New York)
  • Against: 29 state Senators, including 7 Democrats (one of which is Diaz)
  • Undecided: 11 state Senators, including 4 Democrats (Foley, Monserrate, Sampson, Thompson) and 7 Republicans (Hannon, Morahan, Leibell, Saland, Winner, Robach, Ranzenhofer)

Gay marriage proponents need to convince 10 out of the 11 undecided state Senators, which means holding on to all the Democratic vote and persuading 6 out of 7 Republicans. Mathematically possible, but politically daunting… Their main priority should be to talk to some of the 29 Senators who have announced their opposition to the legislation; if Vermont is any example, some might be willing to back the bill. Sen. Huntley is mentioned as a potential flip.

Also this week: The Maine legislature is taking its the first step in the debate, and both chambers of the the Connecticut legislature passed a bill codifying the state Supreme Court’s decision from last year. Governor Rell has said she will sign the legislation.

Two new polls find New York and New Jersey favor gay marriage

A number of these undecided state Senators could be convinced to back the legislation if they feel that public opinion is not against it; and the situation on this front has changed dramatically in recent years - at least in the Northeast. A few days after a Siena survey found 53% of New Yorkers favoring the legalization of gay marriage (versus 39%), two new polls find a similar result:

  • In New Jersey, Quinnipiac found 49% favor gay marriage versus 43%; this is the first time a New Jersey survey finds majority support for same-sex marriage. When asked about civil unions, voters approve of that once-controversial arrangement by a wooping 63% to 30%.
  • A SUSA survey of New York shows 49-44 support for gay marriage; that is a less impressive margin than in the Siena survey, but it is certainly a different result than what than we have grown accustomed to seeing - even in blue states.

It certainly looks unlikely that New York and New Jersey legislators could face a backlash if they were to legalize same-sex marriage.

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