DES MOINES, Iowa – Ever since gay couples began flocking to Iowa to marry three years ago, conservative Republicans have been looking forward to amassing enough political power to put an end to it. But now that the opportunity is finally approaching, their goal may be slipping out of reach.
Conservative lawmakers are watching public opinion move away from them on the gay marriage issue, and now fear that voters might not approve a ban even if the GOP can put one on the ballot by winning control of the Legislature in the November elections.
The shifting views come as a bitter disappointment for the state's prominent Christian conservative community which has long bridled at Iowa's status as a gay rights haven in the heartland — the only place outside the Northeast where gays can marry.
"People are getting comfortable with it and that's a shame to tell you the truth," said Susan Geddes, an Iowa Republican and social conservative organizer who worked for Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign in the state.
Even Republicans seem to be more accepting, said Julie Summa marketing director for The Family Leader, a social conservative advocacy group. She and other evangelical leaders attribute the change to libertarian Republicans, like supporters Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who oppose restrictions on personal freedoms.
The issue is less prominent now in conservative campaigns, they said.
Iowa became the third of six states to legalize gay marriage after the state Supreme Court struck down the state ban in 2009. Since then about 4,500 gay couples have wed here.
Republicans can move to end gay marriage if they win two more seats in the state Senate this year, a goal that could be within reach. That would give them full control of the statehouse and the power to begin preparing a public referendum on the issue.
But the legislative process would take at least two years, and public interest in the cause is already declining. A Des Moines Register poll in February showed 56 percent of Iowans opposed an amendment banning gay marriage, up slightly from a year earlier. The results tracked with the trend in national opinion on the issue.
Geddes, who is managing a handful of GOP statehouse campaigns, said internal polls in conservative Iowa districts show that fewer than 10 percent of Republican voters now consider overturning gay marriage a high priority.
GOP Senate leaders no longer list the issue high on their agenda, although they have promised to propose a ban if they control the legislature. A handful of Republican leaders, such as former county Linn County chairwoman Kathy Potts of Cedar Rapids, recently have announced support for gay marriage.
"If it weren't for the loud voices of a few in our party, I do believe more Republicans would stand up in support" of gay marriage, said Potts, a social conservative who backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential bid.
The atmosphere is much changed from 2010, when conservative advocacy groups mounted a major media campaign against gay marriage and won removal of three justices who had voted to strike down the state ban.
Chuck Laudner, who ran the campaign to dump the judges, said the anti-gay marriage cause has "lost a little of its zip." The political landscape now is dominated by the economy and other issues, he said.
Elsewhere in the nation, gay marriage questions will appear on the November ballot in four states -- Maine voters will consider legalizing it, while those in Maryland, Minnesota and Washington will vote on banning it. North Carolina voters approved a ban earlier this year. President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage in May.
The National Organization for Marriage, which spent more than $500,000 in Iowa in the 2010 elections, is planning to spend at least as much this year to help Republicans win in the state.
The outcome of closely contested races for several Democratic-held seats is expected to determine whether the GOP wins control of the Senate. Republicans won control of the House and the governorship in 2010.
Summa said she hopes Christian conservatives will rally for the cause. "I think people still care about the issue," she said.
Iowa gay rights advocates say they are encouraged by the fact that a ballot measure would come no earlier than 2015, considering it must pass both houses of the Legislature in consecutive two-year general assemblies.
Meanwhile, public acceptance should continue to grow, said Des Moines lawyer Sharon Malhiero, a leading Iowa gay rights activist. "It's not a big deal, three years past. The world hasn't collapsed," she said, adding, "But we're not taking anything for granted."