Gay marriage in Kansas throws political twist

The first marriage of a gay couple in Kansas created a new twist Friday in two of the most intensely fought races of the midterm elections, though it remains to be seen whether the Republican incumbents will get a boost from their continued opposition to same-sex weddings.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback, both locked in surprisingly tight re-election bids, each reaffirmed their support for a state constitutional ban on gay marriage as a court in Kansas' largest, most urban county granted a marriage license to two women.

In this mostly Republican and rural state, any talk of gay marriage has typically worked in the favor of GOP candidates who are staunchly against it. But it's unclear whether that will hold true this year, as Roberts and Brownback are fighting for votes from moderates and independents for whom the issue of gay marriage may be overshadowed by the economy.

Until now, neither the Republican incumbents nor their challengers -- independent U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman and state Rep. Paul Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate -- have emphasized their positions on gay marriage.

That may not change much.

"It's not an issue that either campaign wants to talk about -- pro or against -- and not necessarily just because it's a hot-button issue, but because it's probably not going to move the needle where it needs to move" among moderate voters, said Travis Smith, a campaign consultant at Axiom Strategies, which worked for Roberts in this year's Republican primary.

Orman, a suburban Kansas City businessman, has said he doesn't think the government ought to prohibit gay marriage. But he has focused his campaign on the economy.

During an hourlong debate earlier this week in Overland Park, neither Orman nor Roberts even mentioned gay marriage.

Davis, who represents a reliably Democratic state House district, voted three times against a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage before it was referred to the Kansas ballot in 2005. But he hasn't specifically supported gay marriage during his gubernatorial campaign.

Kansas' constitutional provision, approved with nearly 70 percent support, not only prohibits gay marriage but also denies same-sex couples any "rights and incidents" associated with marriage.

Johnson County District Judge Kevin Moriarty ordered clerks and other judges to nonetheless approve gay marriage applications after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear appeals from several states where gay-marriage bans were overturned. The high court action set off a flurry of developments at clerk's offices and courthouses across the country.

Acting on a request from state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday blocked the further  issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples and set a hearing for Nov. 6  -- two days after the election . Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging Kansas' ban on behalf of two couples who were denied licenses this week.

Brownback spoke out for the ban, saying in written statement: "Activist judges should not overrule the people of Kansas."

Roberts issued a similar statement, vowing to "continue to oppose liberal activist judges who defiantly ignore the will of the people."

Particularly for Roberts, the emergence of gay marriage as a campaign issue could help him appeal to a conservative base that split in the Republican primary, which included a tea-party challenger. To win in November, the Republican incumbents will need to shore up that base and potentially expand it, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka.

"It looks as if there's going to be a fair percentage of moderate Republicans who are going to vote against Roberts and Brownback," Beatty said. They "may want to, in a way, almost concede those moderates and replace them with conservatives."

Roberts, 78, has been struggling to fend off criticism that he has fallen out touch with Kansas during his four decades in Washington. Brownback has experienced a backlash over a tax cut initiative that led to a downgrading of the state's credit rating after tax revenues fell short of projections.

But Beatty said it's no longer a guarantee -- even in Kansas -- that a campaign built around social issues such as gay marriage and abortion can carry a candidate to victory.

"In an election like this, in a way, that issue almost is going to seem passe to many," Beatty said. "It's going to seem settled and other issues, like jobs and the economy and education, might be much more important."

Retired state Sen. Dick Bond, an Overland Park Republican, who voted against the 2005 constitutional amendment, said he isn't sure the measure would still pass with the same overwhelming vote if it were put back on this year's ballot.

"Even Kansas, like the rest of the nation, has changed since then," he said.