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California gay marriage ruling: political hot potato

Hot-button issues like the California gay marriage ruling have cropped up in the run-up to fall midterms. Then again, the economy is the big issue energizing Republicans.

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Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA, center, reads the decision in the United States District Court proceedings challenging Proposition 8 outside of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, Wednesday. A federal judge overturned California's gay marriage ban Wednesday in a landmark case that could eventually land before the US Supreme Court.

Eric Risberg/AP

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It might have been bad news for Democrats that hot-button social issues have burst forth in the run-up to the midterm elections.

A federal judge’s ruling Wednesday overturning the California gay marriage ban moves the issue one step closer to a possible showdown at the Supreme Court. On immigration, a judge’s ruling last week striking down parts of Arizona’s tough new anti-illegal-immigration law also fuels the energies of conservatives. Talk is also growing that it’s time to rethink the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees American citizenship to those born in the United States.

But the Nov. 2 midterms are already dominated by one overarching issue – the economy – that is energizing Republicans, so it’s not clear that the news on gay marriage will make the political environment much worse for Democrats.

“I do think the biggest issues in the country are spending, debt, Washington takeovers, and now we’re going to have a raging debate in September over whether or not it’s appropriate to raise taxes in the middle of a recession,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) said at a Monitor breakfast Thursday, when asked whether he now expects congressional action on gay marriage. “So I think those are the issues that will be in the forefront of the fall campaign.”

The longer term is a different matter. Gay marriage is growing in acceptance among the American public, and efforts to crack down on immigrants and remove birthright citizenship alienate Hispanic voters, who are a growing force in American politics. So Democrats could win in the long run. But for now, the issues work against them.

Of course, the calculus varies from state to state. In California, where the Proposition 8 anti-gay-marriage referendum was just overturned by federal judge Vaughn Walker, residents now appear to favor gay marriage by a slim majority. A poll taken last month by the Public Religion Research Institute shows 51 percent of Californians supporting same-sex marriage and 46 percent in opposition. That reverses the result of Prop. 8, which Californians passed in 2008, by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.

The principals in California’s hot Senate and governor’s races reacted immediately to Judge Walker’s ruling. Democrats Jerry Brown, who is running to return to the governor’s seat, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is locked in a tough reelection race, both praised the decision. The Republicans were a little more equivocal. Meg Whitman, the GOP nominee for governor, repeated her support for Prop. 8, but she has also asserted regularly that she supports civil unions. Senate GOP nominee Carly Fiorina stated her support for Prop. 8 but also highlighted the role of courts.

"The people of California spoke clearly on this issue at the ballot box in 2008,” Ms. Fiorina said Wednesday, according the Associated Press. “That decision is being challenged through our court system and while I don't agree with the judge's ruling today, this is one in what will be a multistep legal process."

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President Obama, too, is trying to thread the needle on an issue that makes some Democrats uncomfortable. He says he opposes gay marriage in favor of civil unions, but he also opposes Prop. 8, calling it “divisive and discriminatory” through a spokesman.

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