GOP's gains ready to propel social issues back into national spotlight

An Iowa bus-tour rally was organized in October to protest three state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage. The campaign was successful.
An Iowa bus-tour rally was organized in October to protest three state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage. The campaign was successful. (Associate Press)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:22 AM

Liberal groups in Wisconsin are bracing for a fight over contraception coverage under Medicaid. Battle lines are being drawn over sex education in North Carolina. And conservatives in several states intend to try to limit the ability of private insurers to cover abortions.

Social issues barely rated in this year's economy-centric midterm elections. More than six in 10 voters who cast ballots on Election Day cited the economic downturn as their top concern, according to exit polls. And this year was the first in more than a decade in which same-sex marriage did not appear on a statewide ballot.

But major GOP gains in state legislatures across the country - where policy on social issues is often set - left cultural conservatives newly empowered. Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, now see an opportunity to block or even reverse recent gains by gay rights advocates in Minnesota and New Hampshire.

"The flip that has occurred is unprecedented and historic," said Brian S. Brown, president of one such group, the National Organization for Marriage. "I wouldn't have expected anything like this."

Brown's organization poured $2.5 million into state races this year, investing in more than 100 state legislative candidates. The group focused particularly on Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Iowa, four states grappling with the same-sex marriage issue.

The efforts paid off, with Republicans gaining at least one chamber in each of those states.

A historic shift

Before the midterm elections, Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures outright. Republicans were in charge in 14 states, and eight states were split. (Nebraska, which has a single legislative chamber, is officially nonpartisan). Today, Republicans control 26 state legislatures, Democrats 17, and five have split control. In New York, officials are still determining who is in charge in the state Senate. Republicans control more legislatures than they have since 1952.

The National Council of State Legislatures noted several historic shifts: It is the first time since the 1800s that Republicans will control the full legislatures in Alabama and North Carolina. Republicans will lead the Minnesota Senate for the first time ever.

(One notable exception to the laser focus on the economy was in Iowa, where Brown's organization contributed nearly $600,000 toward a successful effort to oust three judges who ruled same-sex marriage legal in that state.)

Many liberals say they are concerned that social conservatives will interpret the elections as an endorsement of their agenda. Some liberals have long suspected a hidden social agenda behind GOP and tea party rhetoric about the virtues of small government and lower taxes.

"The election was a referendum on the economy, not [abortion], so we think the voters are going to be very surprised to see the level of attacks on choice at the state and federal level now," said Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group. "We don't think this is what voters voted for."

Focus on economy

But GOP lawmakers who find themselves newly in control of their state legislatures say they will proceed cautiously, focusing first on job creation and budget-cutting.

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