Hawaii voters opened the way for same-sex civil unions to become state law next year, with an election that gave victory to a pro-gay rights gubernatorial candidate and rejected many church-backed candidates.

The state House and Senate retained the Democratic majorities that approved a civil unions bill this year before it was vetoed, and Democratic Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie has said he will sign a similar law if passed by the Legislature.

The move would make Hawaii, long a battleground in the gay rights movement, the sixth state to grant essentially the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.

"I'm hopeful, but I would never want to call any shots until the final vote is taken," said Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, who is gay. "While I remain optimistic, there's still a lot of work to be done."

Oshiro retained his office by defeating a candidate who made civil unions a major issue with a campaign flier showing two men kissing. Only one incumbent lawmaker who backed civil unions lost election last Tuesday despite efforts by opponents of civil unions who held large rallies to show legislators their feelings earlier this year.

Hawaii has figured prominently in the national gay rights movement's efforts since the early 1990s when the state Supreme Court nearly legalized gay marriage.

The 1993 ruling would have made Hawaii the first state to allow same-sex couples to wed, but it didn't take effect while voters were given a chance to decide. They responded five years later by overwhelmingly approving the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment.

The measure gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, and it resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.

Five other states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage.

In April, the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill that would have conferred the same state rights of marriage to committed gay partners, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle in July.

Now for the third straight year, the civil unions issue will likely get a lot of attention when the Legislature convenes in January.

After Tuesday's election, civil unions supporters picked up at least one vote in the Senate and lost a vote in the House, which is still four more votes than the 26 needed for a bill to pass, according to Equality Hawaii, which advocates for the legislation.

In his race against Republican James "Duke" Aiona, who said civil unions are the same as same-sex marriage, Abercrombie consistently backed gay rights and said he would sign a civil unions bill if it reaches his desk. Abercrombie also testified in favor of the bill at the Hawaii Capitol.

"In many ways, this election was a referendum on the bill," said Alan Spector, co-chair for Equality Hawaii. "This election has shown that equality wins elections. There's no reason for us to believe that we can't pass the bill again."

Majority Leader Oshiro said he will make another push for civil unions, which would restart the emotional process of long public hearings, political negotiations, and lively rallies between religious and gay rights groups.

Religious groups — especially evangelical Protestants, Catholics and Mormons — will continue their efforts to convince lawmakers to vote against civil unions through letters, e-mails and possible demonstrations against the legislation, known as HB444.

"Despite the election, there are still a large number of people who oppose the kind of civil unions described in HB444," said Francis Oda of the Hawaii Family Forum. "The best thing to do is to have the community decide this issue, and put it up for a vote."

Speaker of the House Calvin Say said civil unions will move forward if a majority of House Democrats, who control 43 of 51 seats, decide to do so.

"Since we have a great number of returning members, it looks very possible," said Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise. "It's an issue that we've addressed many times already."

Versions of the bill passed the full House in each of the last two years, and it was approved by the Senate last year.

It's fate also may depend on the new composition of the committees legislative leaders assign the bill to. If the bill fails to pass its committees before reaching the full House and Senate, it probably couldn't become law.