Whether Iowa will continue its two-and-a-half year experiment with gay marriage could hinge on the will of a tiny fraction of the state’s population — or so thePAC mailings, press releases and some media reports are proclaiming.

“The future of marriage hangs in the balance,” declares one full color mailer that the National Organization for Marriage sent to more than 12,000 homes in Senate District 18. In that sliver of eastern Iowa, voters will decide in a special election next Tuesday who will fill a vacancy in the state Senate. The decision could create a tie and strip Democrats of their narrow 25-24 lead in the chamber — their last vestige of power in a state government that turned mostly red in 2010. It was the Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, who prevented legislation banning gay marriage from coming to the floor this year.

Advocates on both sides of the issue say a Republican win could open the door for a constitutional amendment to undo the 2009 state Supreme Court ruling that made Iowa the only Midwest state to allow same-sex couples to marry. “This is it. We are facing a special election, and marriage equality hangs in the balance,” said Troy Price, executive director of One Iowa, a gay rights advocacy group, in a September statement. “If we lose the seat, we face a very real chance that a marriage ban will pass a vote in the Senate.”

The stakes look the same to Chuck Hurley of The Family Leader, a prominent Iowa-based conservative group that is teaming up with the National Organization for Marriage in an independent expenditure campaign for Republican candidate Cindy Golding. “We hope this Senate race….will break this undemocratic stalemate,” Hurley says, adding that he’s “about 75 percent optimistic” that a Republican win would lead to the same-sex marriage law being overturned.

But reality may prove more complicated than that, even if Golding defeats her Democratic opponent, Liz Mathis. A gay marriage ban would still face many obstacles on the way to enactment — including the problem of moving it through a numerically tied legislative chamber.

The Vacancy 

Neither Golding nor Mathis has had much time to campaign for the open seat. The candidates weren’t picked by their parties until late September, about two weeks after Republican Governor Terry Branstad appointed Swati Dandekar, the Democrat who had represented District 18, to a spot on the Iowa Utilities Board. To the chagrin of her party colleagues, Dandekar, who had been making $25,000 in the Senate, accepted the position, which can pay up to $120,890.

Certainly a Republican win in the special election would give the party a better chance to push through some of its agenda: bills that would fast-track nuclear energy projects, scale back collective bargaining for state workers and repeal subsidies for pre-school. Ending gay marriage would be on the list; like the other items, it was quashed in the narrowly Democratic Senate this year after passing in the heavily Republican House. But would it be able to skirt the intricacies of a partisan deadlock? In many cases, such a deadlock has been known to push polarizing legislation off the agenda altogether.

Sharing Power

If the state’s lieutenant governor, who years ago would have presided over the Senate, had the power to break a tie, a bill banning gay marriage would have an excellent chance. Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds is an opponent of gay marriage. But while some news stories have reported that Reynolds could make this decision, that is no longer the case in Iowa, which stripped the lieutenant governor of a tie-breaking vote when it amended its constitution in 1988. Iowa is now one of several states in which the Senate negotiates a power-sharing agreement before a session begins. During previous ties in 2005 and 2006, the Senate appointed bipartisan leadership on each committee and on the floor. Republican and Democratic leaders swapped control each week, and both party leaders had to agree before putting a bill to a vote.

In those years only about half as many Senate bills reached the governor’s desk as in typical years, and few were highly contentious. “In one fell swoop, it eliminated a lot of the nasty stuff that goes on in the legislature,” says David Yepsen, then a political columnist at the Des Moines Register. Jonathan Roos, who reported from the chamber daily for the Register, says power sharing led senators to pursue a “minimalist agenda.”

“Anything that had a really partisan flavor was pretty much dead on arrival,” he says. “All the social issues – they kind of just go to the sidelines.”

Though the Iowa Senate could forge a different agreement in the event of another tie, most observers in Des Moines expect the Senate would follow the old one. In a legislature increasingly focused on tight budgets and unemployment rates, all of this signals that a repeal of same-sex marriage would have a difficult time.

On top of that, says Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, the added factor of redistricting for the 2012 election — a shakeup that will see seven matches between incumbents in new districts — may make senators even more cautious about supporting controversial legislation such as a gay marriage ban. “It’s not going to get to the floor,” predicts Larimer. “There would be a stalemate.”

More obstacles

And if a gay marriage ban somehow wriggled through the deadlocked Senate? Then it would still face several hurdles before it could become law. That’s because amending Iowa’s constitution requires a bill to pass both legislative chambers in two consecutive sessions before it is put to a popular vote.

It’s hard to say whether same-sex marriage foes could ignite the same fervor they did in 2010, when they campaigned successfully to oust three Supreme Court judges involved in the unanimous decision establishing gay marriage in 2009. “The opposition to gay marriage has declined significantly since the 2010 election,” says Larimer, echoing the findings of recent polls.

Election Outlook

Of course, none of this will matter, at least for now, unless the Republican Golding defeats Democrat Mathis. Republicans’ small advantage in registered voters in

the district buoys Golding’s hopes, but Mathis, as a former local television anchor, has better name recognition. Because of that, even Hurley of The Family Leader purports to be pessimistic about Golding’s chances.

In fact, while national pressure groups focus on the district and the gay marriage issue, and some experts predict that more than $1 million will be spent on the election, the candidates themselves aren’t stressing gay marriage. “This is an election focusing on Linn County voters,” says Don McDowell, a spokesman for Golding’s campaign. “Iowans in this district are concerned about pocket issues — jobs and spending issues.”

Senate Democratic leader Gronstal agrees, even as he struggles to keep a grasp on his slim majority. “This is a decision these local voters have to make,” he says. “Lots of people on either side of the political spectrum are trying to make this into something that it’s not.”

(Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy. Jim Malewitz is a former assistant editor and founding staff member of IowaWatch and continues as a volunteer consultant)

– Contact Jim Malewitz at jmalewitz@pewtrusts.org 

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