Looking for a fight with Corbett on gay marriage
With separate acts defying Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes have pushed the contentious cultural issue to the forefront of state politics.
The two Democrats are forcing Gov. Corbett to defend the ban amid growing public support for gay matrimony, handing their party a weapon with which to try to define the governor and other Republicans as intolerant and out of touch heading into the 2014 election.
Corbett is "on the wrong side of history" and "discriminatory," the state Democratic Party charged in a YouTube advertisement it circulated Friday. Expect more shots.
Fifty-two percent of Pennsylvania registered voters supported allowing gay couples the right to marry in a March Franklin & Marshall poll, a nearly complete reversal of public opinion measured by the same independent polling center in 2006.
"For years, the Democratic Party screamed blue bloody murder about Republicans using social issues to drive wedges between voters," said GOP strategist Charles Gerow, based in Harrisburg. "Now it looks like they've found one that works for them, and they're going to use it."
A state law, enacted in 1996 with bipartisan support, defines marriage as between one man and one woman and says that Pennsylvania will not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where it is legal.
Last month, during a raucous political-style event at the Constitution Center, Kane declared she could not ethically defend a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statute.
Hanes, calling the ban unconstitutional, has issued marriage licenses to more than 60 gay and lesbian couples in the last two weeks, though they do not have legal effect. Seven couples have married, and the state filed for injunction to stop Hanes.
The stands by Kane and Hanes have sparked debate about marriage as well as fundamental questions about the rule of law and the duty of public officials to uphold it even when they disagree. Political experts say the political effects in Pennsylvania are somewhat unpredictable.
Hanes' handing out of licenses "has blown it up into a political issue at a time when it's politically disadvantageous for the governor to have to deal with it," said Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, a Republican.
Castor said messages from the public were running 99 percent against Hanes. Democrats Leslie Richards and Josh Shapiro say the feedback they're getting is about 80 percent in favor of what Hanes is doing, 20 percent opposed.
Positions on gay marriage tend to break along party and generational lines, according to polls, with Democrats and younger voters more supportive.
Politically speaking, Kane had no real choice but to refuse to defend the state's ban in court, foisting that task on Corbett's office, said pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Corbett was also in a bind, Madonna said.
"Kane would have sustained some serious political damage as the Democrats' rising star if she had defended it," Madonna said. As for Corbett, her predecessor as attorney general, it would have been best if she had taken up the case so he could have avoided the issue entirely, Madonna said.
Now he has no choice but to defend the law vigorously. "Corbett would have had more serious problems with his base because he starts his campaign with almost no support from independent voters, and he needs conservative Republicans to be enthusiastic."
At the same time, several national polls have shown hints that some Republicans are coming to view the party's traditional opposition to same-sex marriage as a long-term electoral detriment.
After the party lost two presidential elections in a row, about 60 percent of Republicans say it must change, including reconsideration of some core positions, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
On gay marriage, the poll finds more Republicans say they want the party to moderate its traditional stance against gay marriage than to take a more conservative tack - 31 percent to 27 percent.
"There are a lot of suburban Republicans who are libertarian on matters of personal behavior," Gerow said, but Pennsylvania also still has many socially conservative voters - in both parties. Some analysts, for instance, credit African American voters with helping pass an initiative banning same-sex marriage in California, despite heavy Democratic turnout for the presidential election.
Daniel F. McElhatton, a Democratic political consultant, said the controversy would aid his party in bashing Republicans such as the governor as intolerant, though he expects the marriage issue to matter in voters' 2014 choices mostly at the "margins."
But there is a broader reason for Pennsylvania to liberalize its marriage definition, he argued.
"It's bad economics," McElhatton said. "Pennsylvania's governor and members of the General Assembly are saying, 'We're completely intolerant,' and that is bad for keeping smart young people here and attracting capital. It's not good policy for a state that is aging."
Jeff Coleman, a Republican campaign consultant based in Harrisburg, said it's not good policy to have freelancing officials bypassing the legislative branch in trying to make changes to the law.
"It's inspiring a trend toward anarchy in political decision-making all the way down to county row officers," Coleman said. "That's not good for anybody in the long run."
Inquirer staff writer Jessica Parks contributed to this article.