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

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.

"We ran on a strict fiscal message," said state Sen. Amy Koch (R), the majority leader in the Minnesota state Senate. "I'm pro life. Those issues are so important, but when people are worried about getting food on the table or not being able to sell their home, that's what really consumes their thoughts and we need to deal with that first."

Even so, though same-sex marriage advocates had until recently thought Minnesota would become one of the next states to allow such unions, Koch said the legislature is now unlikely to take up the issue.

"I can't imagine we would look at that," she said. "I just think most people are focused on jobs, economy, the budget and that's what we will focus on."

And in New Hampshire, one of five states and the District that allow same-sex couples to legally wed, social conservatives cheered the results of an election that could pave the way for a repeal of that law.

Republicans wrested control of both chambers and now outnumber Democrats 3 to 1 in the 400-member House. Democratic Gov. John Lynch was reelected, but Republicans have a veto-proof majority. Social conservatives plan to push for the gay-marriage ban as well as the reinstatement of a law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions - but not until lawmakers cut taxes and create jobs as they have promised, said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a Christian activist group.

"The social issues were for the most part silent in the election, in that it was really a fiscal message of less spending and less taxes that propelled most Republicans into office," he said. "I expect that to be the focus. That being said, I do think [these] will be two very key social issues that will come up this session."

His group joined with several others to raise about $1.2 million for state-level candidates. Since same-sex marriage was legalized there in January, about 1,000 same-sex couples have wed.

Pressing their issues

In North Carolina, Christian groups have promised to push for greater restrictions on abortions and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And liberal groups are lining up to protect the Healthy Youth Act, which requires most students in grades 7 through 9 to learn about contraception in addition to abstinence - a requirement conservative groups oppose.

In Wisconsin, Governor-elect Scott Walker (R) has said he opposes the state's expansion earlier this year of a program that provides free birth control to low-income people and youth as young as 15. His agenda will be helped along by the legislature, which will now be controlled by Republicans.

Abortion foes say they expect several states where Republicans made significant gains to consider barring, under the new federal health-care overhaul, some private insurance companies from covering abortions as part of their routine plans. So far, Arizona, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana have passed such legislation.

"Ninety percent of pro-life legislation happens at the state level, so the landscape change that we have now is huge," said Daniel McConchie, vice president of governmental affairs at Americans United for Life, an antiabortion group.

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