Analysis: Gay marriage clouds Kansas governor race
Topeka The re-emergence of gay marriage as a hot legal issue nationally has complicated Democratic challenger Paul Davis' bid in Kansas to unseat conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Davis has represented a safely Democratic seat as a Kansas House member and voted three times in 2004 and 2005 against proposals to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. Voters amended the constitution in 2005, with nearly 70 percent approving a measure that also denied same-sex couples any "rights and incidents" associated with marriage.
The Kansas Democratic Party platform declares support for "marriage equality." Davis hasn't publicly followed suit and is avoiding a public declaration of support for gay rights, even irritating gay-rights advocates eager to see Brownback lose.
But Davis' chances of defeating Brownback depend upon winning support from disaffected Republicans and unaffiliated voters nervous about funding for public schools and social services following personal income tax cuts enacted at Brownback's urging. Davis' foes could more easily paint him as a liberal if he explicitly supports gay marriage, and a declaration could raise doubts for voters with some conservative religious views who otherwise might be receptive to his message on fiscal issues.
"It's certainly something that touches on people's core values," said Chapman Rackaway, a Fort Hays State University political science professor. "I'm not surprised he's trying to soft-pedal gay marriage as much as possible."
The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to consider appeals from five states seeking to preserve gay-marriage bans after adverse judicial rulings, including Utah, which is in the same federal appeals-court circuit as Kansas. The American Civil Liberties Union expects to file a federal lawsuit to end Kansas' ban.
Brownback immediately reiterated his support for the ban, noted the voter backing it enjoyed when it was enacted and declared, "Activist judges should not overrule the people of Kansas." He later said the state should defend its ban in court.
The governor does face his own political balancing act. He is the most conservative governor in at least a generation, but he's working to keep center-right and centrist voters in his camp by emphasizing fiscal issues.
The tone of his campaign has frustrated some social conservatives who've wanted him to be more vocal about opposing abortion and supporting traditional values, said the Rev. Terry Fox, a prominent Southern Baptist minister in Wichita who was a leader of the 2004-05 campaign for Kansas' gay-marriage ban.
"They feel like Brownback has not supported his conservative base enough to energize them," Fox said.
But Davis' position is trickier, and he's been more circumspect. Spokesman Chris Pumpelly said Davis voted against the proposed gay marriage ban because he believed Kansas needs to be seen as a welcoming place.
When his campaign is pressed on whether Davis supports marriage rights for gay couples, Pumpelly said the Democratic candidate is focusing on issues "that can bring us together," such as education.
"Paul is going to be focused on issues that Kansans are concerned about," Pumpelly said.
The gay-rights group Equality Kansas endorsed Davis, based on his voting record as a legislator, saying in a statement Friday that it is one "few Kansas politicians can claim."
But the group also said that as House minority leader, "Mr. Davis has made public statements and taken actions that call into question the strength of his commitment to LGBT equality."
Some Republicans also are picking up on Davis' avoidance of the issue. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and Brownback ally, said the Democrat's "silence" is telling.
"He knows exactly how Kansans feel," Wagle said. "The approach each candidate has taken reveals a direct contrast in leadership styles. The governor showed the courage to be up front with Kansans, while Rep. Davis ran the other direction."
For all of the criticism Davis is receiving, he has political incentives to run away from the issue. An open declaration of support for gay marriage could energize social conservatives, deflect attention from his critiques of the Brownback administration and alienate voters he needs to win.
Yet, with Johnson County issuing marriage licenses to gay couples and a legal battle in the offing, Davis can't avoid the issue in the final weeks of the campaign.