The “values vote” has always been something of a chimera, part niche-marketing to white evangelicals and part clever branding designed to exaggerate the Christian right’s power at the polls. In past elections, homophobia was the cement that held this bloc together. The specter of same-sex marriage fueled scores of state constitutional marriage amendments and, according to some, Bush’s march to his second term. But this year, the beast took a hit–if not a fatal blow, then at least a series of self-inflicted flesh wounds.
First came Mark Foley’s “naughty e-mails,” then word of Ted Haggard’s trysts with meth and a male escort. To be sure, these scandals were not the defining issue of the midterm elections. The Republicans came within 5,000 votes of retaining Foley’s seat. Those most associated with the affair, Denny Hastert and Tom Reynolds, held on to theirs. Voters in Haggard’s home state of Colorado passed a gay-marriage ban, rejected domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and re-elected Marilyn Musgrave, sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment–so much for collateral damage. Still, the Foley-Haggard imbroglio had a diffuse, tarnishing effect. When voters named “corruption” as a top motive for throwing the bums out, they were most likely thinking of GOP lobbying shenanigans, but the odor of two sex scandals perfumed the air. More important, for a moment at least, the mask of Christian-right piety slipped.
That mask is what voters rejected in Arizona, which became the first state to defeat a marriage amendment at the polls. In Tennessee, Idaho and South Carolina, voters approved gay-marriage bans by overwhelming margins. In Wisconsin, South Dakota and Virginia–where scrappy state campaigns worked overtime against better-funded foes–the results were much closer.
Unlike 2004, however, Christian-right leaders can’t claim that values voters rallied around marriage amendments and lifted GOP candidates to victory. First, there were few GOP triumphs. In close contests with high turnout, such as Virginia’s Senate race, voters ranked same-sex marriage below terrorism, Iraq and the economy as important issues. As for Arizona, the margin was slim but the victory was thrilling nonetheless, and perhaps precedent-setting. Activists rallied progressive clergy, reached out to moderate Republicans and business leaders and marched alongside Democratic candidates like Gabrielle Giffords (who won an open seat in the 8th District). Most crucial, they stressed the damage that Prop. 107 would have done to unmarried heterosexuals (the measure bans any legal status that is similar to marriage). Arizona Together, the organization that led the campaign in the northern half of the state, ran TV commercials featuring heterosexual couples. Meanwhile, No on Prop 107, based in the more liberal south, used small donations (averaging $107) to buy ads on fourteen stations, ranging from Spanish-language spots to conservative talk-radio bits that featured the wife of a GOP mayor.
“The people who wrote this amendment made two mistakes,” said Cindy Jordan of No on Prop 107. “First, they forgot that diversity is something Arizonans pride themselves on. Second, they thought that if they just put this on the ballot, like they did in other states in 2004, that Arizona would just blindly vote for it. But they didn’t. Arizonans paid attention.” Mostly, it was savvy organizing, stressing the diversity of real families, that made that happen. But the timely unmasking of holier-than-thou preachers of narrow “family values” certainly didn’t hurt.