Michigan's same-sex marriage trial has political implications for state's GOP

Feb 28, 2014

We are one week, halfway through, the trial in federal court in Detroit centering on the challenge to Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The arguments are supposed to go on for another week, and then we’ll wait for the judge’s decision. But the case’s mere existence, the fact that it’s occurring, is having an effect on the political landscape in Michigan.

And, it should be noted that these hearings are not taking place within a vacuum. Just this week we saw two more gay marriage rulings. Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage was struck down and Kentucky was ordered to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

There is also another federal case underway here in Michigan that is challenging the state’s refusal to allow live-in partner benefits for public employees. It’s the mechanism that was created to allow same-sex couples to use their benefits to cover partners and children who would otherwise be denied coverage under Michigan’s marriage amendment, approved by voters in a statewide election 10 years ago.

It’s widely anticipated that - absent a court decision that strikes down the same-sex marriage ban - the amendment will be revisited in 2016 with a ballot drive.

But Democrats aren’t waiting. They’re using this moment as a fundraising and organizing opportunity. Emails are going out almost weekly reminding people that it’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder and Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette who are working to keep same-sex couples from marrying and qualifying for employer-sponsored health benefits.

Democrats and Republicans both see how quickly public opinion regarding same-sex marriage is shifting. Michigan’s same-sex marriage amendment was passed in 2004 by a 59 percent majority. Compare that with a new Glengariff poll that shows now 59 percent of Michigan voters believe that the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Even more voters believe that Michigan should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. And, there’s a recent nationwide survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that shows a majority - 53 percent - support gay marriage. That’s up from 32 percent in 2003.

Some Republicans are hoping to re-position their party to a more libertarian view on marriage, which also potentially helps with younger voters. But the GOP has a dilemma here, a significant share of the Republican base still opposes same-sex marriage and is willing to fight out that issue in primaries and convention floors.

We’ll talk more about this in the future on It’s Just Politics, but there is a fierce competition underway among Michigan Republicans for precinct delegate positions. These are local activists who help organize, get out voters, and choose delegates to state party conventions. It’s the Tea Party, traditional old guard conservatives versus the middle-of-the-road and libertarian Republicans.

This could also help determine the fate of efforts in the Legislature to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Some Republicans think that would be a dramatic gesture that shows this is not your grandfather’s GOP. And, as we’ve talked about before, there’s also Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema and his anti-gay comments that seem to be continually putting Republicans on the defensive.

All of this puts Governor Snyder in a political bind. Sure, he’s running for reelection statewide in what’s expected to be a pretty good Republican turnout year. Yet, even some people around Snyder are getting a little frustrated with his dismissive attitude toward issues of LGBT rights - he says it’s not his fight, that it’s really not that important to him compared to jobs, the economy, roads, and immigration. But, he is the governor, the chief executive officer of the state. He doesn’t get to simply pick and choose which issues he wants to deal with. That is, after all, why he is the named as a defendant in the same-sex marriage case.