Gay marriage will be issue in NH's fall elections
CONCORD, N.H.—The House may have killed a bill to repeal New Hampshire's gay marriage law, yet the results of the November gubernatorial election could breathe new life into the effort.
Voters on both sides of the issue will have a choice: the two Democrats support gay marriage while the two Republicans support traditional marriage.
Democrats Jackie Cilley and Maggie Hassan are two former state senators who voted for the law in 2009. Both reiterated their support for it after the House killed a bill Wednesday that would have repealed the law and replaced it with civil unions.
"I strongly oppose any repeal of marriage equality," Hassan said in a statement issued after the vote.
"In my mind it is a settled issue," Cilley agreed Thursday.
On the other hand, Republicans Kevin Smith and Ovide Lamontagne support marriage being between a man and a woman.
"I support traditional marriage and if the Legislature were to put a bill on my desk to support that definition, I would sign it," Smith said Thursday. "That being said, it is not my agenda as governor."
Smith said he would hope a repeal bill would restore civil unions, which the state had in 2008 and 2009, and ensure existing same-sex marriages remained valid. New Hampshire's gay marriage law took effect in 2010 and more than 1,900 gay couples have wed since.
At a rally last month for the repeal bill, Lamontagne also said if he was elected he would sign legislation repealing gay marriage.
State Rep. David Bates, the Windham Republican who sponsored the repeal bill, said the issue didn't die with Wednesday's defeat of his bill.
"If we have a governor in place more favorable to traditional marriage that will change the dynamic considerably," he said.
If the House had passed the repeal measure, it would have gone to the Senate; both houses are controlled by Republicans. Democratic Gov. John Lynch had promised to veto the bill if it had reached his desk. Supporters would have needed a two-thirds majority to override the veto -- a high hurdle and one Bates said would not be needed if a governor willing to sign a repeal bill is elected.
"Winning a majority vote is well within the realm of possibilities," he said.
Though Republicans hold a 189-seat advantage in the House, Bates' bill failed to get a majority. The amendment with the best chance of passing died 162-188 with 96 Republicans voting against it.
Both sides expect money to flow into New Hampshire to support their candidates.
The National Organization for Marriage has pledged to spend $250,000 to help lawmakers running for re-election who support repealing the law. On the other side, the New Hampshire Republicans of Freedom and Equality PAC is raising money to back Republicans who vote to retain it.
NOM president Brian Brown said in a statement Thursday that the money has not been spent, but will be to support candidates who support repealing the law.
"Because of the vote, we now have a target list. Both Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith support traditional marriage. We will be very involved in the general election," Brown said.
Sean Owen, chair of the New Hampshire Republicans of Freedom and Equality PAC, said Thursday his group will be working to counter NOM's financial impact.
"We are working to help lawmakers who stood up in support of freedom and equality and in support of all families," he said in a statement.
Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said state polls have showed for years that gay marriage is not a major issue for residents. The most recent poll last October found 50 percent strongly oppose the law's repeal and 12 percent somewhat opposed repeal.
Smith believes the issue could galvanize Democrats to participate in the election, but the economy will dominate reasons why voters choose their candidates.
"The political winds are in the Democrats' face right now. When the economy is bad, you and your party take the heat," he said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia. New Jersey lawmakers recently passed a gay marriage bill, but the governor vetoed it. An override vote could come as late as January 2014.
Since 1998, 31 states have had ballot measures related to same-sex marriage, and opponents have prevailed in every state. Those states include Maine, where voters in 2009 rejected the state's gay-marriage law.
Last month, a federal appeals court declared California's same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional. The ruling could mean the bitterly contested, voter-approved law will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.