BOSTON – The November elections in Massachusetts were supposed to be Phase Two in the state's epic gay-rights battle, a time for political payback and citizen retaliation for votes cast during this year's debate on gay marriage.
But the divisive issue, which dominated Statehouse discourse after the state's high court legalized gay marriage a year ago, is not playing a highly visible role in the legislative elections that could ultimately determine the fate of same-sex weddings in Massachusetts.
"I've been knocking on thousands of doors and I'm not asked about this issue very frequently," said Democrat Angus McQuilken (search), a gay-rights supporter engaged in a rematch with Republican Sen. Scott Brown (search), a gay marriage opponent.
Candidates on both sides say most voters are placing other issues higher on their priority list, such as taxes and the economy. Political analysts argue that gay marriage has slipped from the spotlight because most candidates — regardless of their views — realize it is simply not a winning issue in a deeply divided state.
"I think that it's a two-edged sword and candidates can't touch it without getting sliced by one side of the blade," said Jeffrey Berry, political science professor at Tufts University. "Whatever side they're on, there are voters who are passionately opposed to that view."
The issue dates to a ruling a year ago by Massachusetts' highest court that said gay couples had a right under the state's constitution to marry. The ruling took effect in May with considerable fanfare as gay couples around the state flocked to city halls to apply for marriage licenses.
In between, the Legislature held a protracted debate that saw citizens clashing in the hallways of the Statehouse. What emerged was a narrowly approved amendment that would ban gay marriages while legalizing civil unions. The measure must be adopted again in the upcoming two-year legislative session before going on the ballot in 2006.
Gay rights advocates need to gain at least five more supporters in the Legislature to prevent the measure from going to voters.
Although gay marriage advocates and foes are investing money in candidates who support their viewpoint, the action is mainly behind the scenes.
The ho-hum response is in stark contrast to the Vermont elections that came after that state legalized civil unions in 2000. Seventeen Vermont lawmakers who supported civil union rights for gay couples were ousted during the fall elections.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an ardent and outspoken opponent of gay marriage during this year's debate, has not raised gay rights as part of his well-financed effort to install more GOP lawmakers in the heavily Democratic Legislature.
"We don't hear a whole lot of people talking about gay marriage one way or another," said Tim O'Brien, executive director of the state Republican Party. "Reform, tax increases — that's what people are really caring about."
Gay-rights activists say voters have simply come to realize that granting marriage rights to gay couples has had no impact on their lives.
"The weddings have gone on and there hasn't been a major catastrophe. The sky hasn't fallen," said Tom Gerace, co-founder of SupportEquality.org, a Web site that funnels contributions to pro-gay candidates involved in the toughest races.
But Kris Mineau, head of the anti-gay marriage Massachusetts Family Institute, says the issue isn't dead.
"Everybody's trying to be politically correct on both sides, because it's a third rail and they'd rather not touch it," she said. "But the voters are concerned about it. It's not going away."
Mineau's organization has produced a voter guide on social issues, which is being distributed primarily in churches. The group is also trying to register voters in critical districts.
The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign has pumped $600,000 into MassEquality.org to help with its grass-roots efforts in campaigns where pro-gay rights candidates are in jeopardy, said Cheryl Jacques, who left the Massachusetts Legislature earlier this year to head the group.