By: Rebecca Elliott
Defending a divisive gay marriage ban is probably not the fight Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett would have chosen 15 months ahead of an election he’s widely expected to lose. A majority of Pennsylvanians now support same-sex marriage, a dramatic shift from just a few years ago.
But the issue has been thrust in the first-term Republican’s lap — and the politics may not be all bad for him.
Corbett’s decision to stand by the state’s 1996 ban will help shore up his shaky support among Republicans and all but eliminates the possibility of a primary challenge from the right, strategists said.
But the conflict between Corbett and Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, also prolongs a conversation about an increasingly unpopular law when the governor is struggling to pick up every vote he can. A June poll out of Quinnipiac University said that Corbett, who is in his first term, has a dismal 30 percent favorability rating among Pennsylvania voters.
The legal debate over same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania was renewed two weeks after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s gay marriage ban, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and specifies that Pennsylvania will not recognize same-sex couples’ out-of-state marriages.
Although the defense of such challenges ordinarily falls under the purview of the state attorney general, Kane made the rare decision to not to back the law, saying she believes it to be “wholly unconstitutional.”
That put Corbett, one of the least popular governors in the country, in a tough spot: defend a law that a growing number of voters disagree with; or side with Kane and anger the GOP base.
On July 30, he chose the former.
Corbett’s decision adds gay marriage to the list of issues he must juggle ahead of what’s expected to be a vicious reelection fight. His tanking popularity and struggles to push his agenda through a legislature controlled by his own party — privatizing liquor stores, public pension reform and transportation funding — have prompted several Democrats to jump into next year’s race.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) announced her candidacy in April and State Treasurer Rob McCord launched a “McCord for Governor” political action committee in June. They lead Corbett by 10 and 8 points, respectively, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Pennsylvania political analysts said Corbett had little choice but to defend the gay marriage ban.
“If he had chosen to accept the decision by Attorney General Kane, I think that would have put him in serious difficulty with his base” — namely, the most conservative voters in the state — said Franklin and Marshall pollster Terry Madonna.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that he agrees with Kane that the Pennsylvania gay marriage law is unconstitutional but that Corbett “would look like a hypocrite” had he not defended it, given his stance on the issue.
Although the decision angered Democrats and could alienate moderate Republicans from the must-win Philadelphia suburbs, analysts said that in defending the law, Corbett all but guaranteed himself a straight shot at the Republican nomination, which had looked to be in jeopardy.
“I think if he didn’t defend it, the chances of someone from the party on the right using this as a moment to throw their hat in the ring would be much higher,” said Muhlenberg College pollster Chris Borick.
No Republicans have stepped up to run against Corbett since Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor took a pass in May.
Nevertheless, strategists said the debate over gay marriage will remain at the forefront of Pennsylvania politics in the coming months. The fact that the state’s attorney general and governor are at odds on the legality of a law passed by the state legislature will provide ample fodder for the media.
“It promises to have a protracted life in terms of Pennsylvania news,” said T.J. Rooney, a former state representative who served as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party through 2010. “By its very nature it tends to draw people one way or the other.” Rooney is serving as the chair of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty’s campaign.
For Corbett, the extended coverage is less than welcome news. In 2006, a decade after the marriage law in question was passed, just 33 percent of Pennsylvanian voters approved of gay marriage. That number shot up by about 20 percentage points in the past seven years.
A February Franklin and Marshall poll found that 52 percent of Pennsylvania voters approve of gay marriage, the first time a public poll registered majority support. This number increased to 54 percent by May. However, a March poll from Public Policy Polling found that voters in the state were more divided on the issue, with 45 percent in favor of gay marriage as opposed to 47 percent against.
“In his optimal situation he would not have to talk about this issue at all, all the way to Election Day,” Borick said, adding that he thought Corbett would lose were an election to be held today.
However, what matters now may or may not be at the forefront of voters’ minds come November of next year.
“I think it has some potential to sort of replace abortion as the high-profile cultural issue,” Madonna said of gay marriage.
The ACLU lawsuit isn’t all that’s fueling the gay marriage controversy. The Corbett administration recently sued Montgomery County register of wills D. Bruce Hanes after he began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA. And the mayor of Braddock, a Pittsburgh suburb, officiated a gay marriage on Monday in defiance of the law.
Still, “I don’t necessarily think Democrats are going to lead with this issue in 2014 against the governor,” Borick said. While Democrats will be perfectly happy to let Corbett deal with fallout arising from his defense of the ACLU’s suit, they will probably tread lightly given that a significant number of Democrats are uneasy with same-sex marriage.
“In terms of electing the next governor, it will be a non-issue,” Rendell said.
Republican strategist Charlie Gerow agreed that gay marriage will not be the deciding factor — or even a major factor — in the 2014 election.
“I think that it’s a significant shift,” Gerow said of the state’s changing opinions on gay marriage. “But it’s not yet so overwhelming that it’s going to cause a political problem for somebody who supports a law passed by the general assembly supporting or upholding traditional marriage.”