Indiana is not generally included on lists of key 2014 election battlegrounds. The solidly Republican state does not have many competitive House races, and it does not hold a U.S. Senate election this year.
But Republicans everywhere ought to pay close attention to Indiana this winter, as the GOP-led Legislature deals with an anti-gay-marriage measure whose passage could hurt the party’s national brand and extinguish Republican hopes of taking the Senate.
Let’s quickly review the math. Republicans need to flip six Senate seats now in Democratic hands to take the chamber. Incumbent Democrats are retiring in five states – Montana, Iowa, South Dakota, Michigan and West Virginia – only one of which, Iowa, ought to be a particularly heavy lift. Democratic incumbents are running in three states in which a Republican ought to have a very good chance; those states are Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina. Democrats are also running in four swing states that have recently tilted more toward Democrats, but where Republicans at least have a fighting chance: Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and New Hampshire. On the other side, the only current GOP seat in serious jeopardy thus far appears to be in Georgia. So the party needs to win six or seven races out of roughly a dozen that are competitive. Not easy, but doable.
But Republicans have a big problem with same-sex marriage. Social conservatives opposed to gay marriage still make up a sizable slice of the GOP base, and most Republican incumbents have longstanding histories of opposing marriage equality. But nationally, acceptance of gay marriage has grown so rapidly that the anti-marriage position, which only three or four years ago was the politically safe one, has become political quicksand.
Enter Indiana. The traditionally conservative state has long banned same-sex marriage by statute, but in 2011, its Legislature took steps to advance a constitutional amendment forbidding the practice. The Legislature needs to approve the measure twice before it goes to voters. At the time the process began, support for the amendment was unquestioned. Now, however, The New York Times reports that Indiana lawmakers are hesitating due to changes in voter sentiment.
Just across the state’s western border, Illinois legalized same-sex marriage last year, with the first resulting ceremony in late November. Minnesota legalized the practice last year too. Iowa has allowed same-sex marriage since 2009. A federal judge in the state’s eastern neighbor, Ohio, found that same-sex marriages should be recognized on death certificates.
Beyond geography, courts nationwide have signaled deep skepticism over whether any state bans have a chance of surviving indefinitely, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has not (yet) struck down state constitutional bans or the relevant section of the Defense of Marriage Act. Utah, another historically conservative state, recently saw a federal judge declare the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage illegal. When the judge refused to stay his own order, gay marriage began in that state. State officials failed to get higher courts to stop the marriages, though the underlying ruling still faces appeals.
It is against this backdrop that Indiana Republicans find themselves in a dilemma. Indiana will hold its primaries in May, and Republicans could face backlash from social conservatives if they do not push the amendment forward. On the other hand, opposing same-sex marriage is becoming an increasing handicap in general elections, even in states like Indiana.
Unsurprisingly, the state’s political leaders want to talk about something – anything – else. Gov. Mike Pence, a conservative who has opposed same-sex marriage in the past, has left the issue off his agenda in recent months, The Times reports. Brian C. Bosma, the Republican House speaker, mentioned the amendment only tangentially in a speech last month, instead emphasizing other priorities such as education and business tax reform.
Many Republicans realize that not only is the gay marriage battle a lost cause, but that the fight is doing increasing damage to the party by tying Republicans to a position more and more Americans view as intolerant. With this year marking a decade of gay marriage in this country (Massachusetts started in 2004) and with nearly 20 states already permitting the practice, it is clear to all but gay marriage’s hardest-core opponents that it has not hurt traditional marriage, or anything else for that matter. And most Americans who have thought about it at all realize that having couples considered legally married in some states but not others is a ridiculous and potentially hurtful result that nobody wants. It is untenable in the long term.
My guess is that the Indiana Legislature will either fail to bring the issue up at all or, more likely, that it will revisit the proposed amendment but change its language to apply only to the term “marriage.” (In its current form, the amendment would threaten all legal arrangements between same-sex partners.) Either approach probably dooms the amendment. Even if it somehow made it through the Legislature, such a measure is unlikely to ever take effect. I strongly suspect Indiana voters would reject it if it got as far as a ballot, and that hardly anyone will see any point in fighting over the issue anyway when the courts are rejecting such measures over and over.
Republicans cannot have the big year they hope to have in 2014 if they cling to positions that are not only losing in the courts, but which are on the wrong side of history and increasingly out of step with voters. Indiana may be an early test of whether Republicans are ready for success.