California is a metaphor for the country’s political tension this year, pitting right-wing, business-centric conservatives against establishment incumbent Democrats. The fights over the state’s governorship and U.S. Senate seat are among the fiercest in the country. But there’s one thing both sides seem to agree on: no one wants to touch Prop 8.
The overturning last week of the controversial ban on gay marriage reverberated across the country. But at the source of the action, California’s top politicians simply pushed the food around on their plates. In a one-sentence statement on his Web site, Democrat Jerry Brown, who's running for governor, said merely that denying gays the right to marry “violates” the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. In an even shorter statement, Sen. Barbara Boxer said it was “a step forward in the march toward equal rights.”
On the Republican side, top pols were even less willing to go into detail. When asked, Senate challenger Carly Fiorina said plainly that she “disagree[d]” with the ruling. When gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman was pressed to take a stand, she stated just slightly more than the obvious: that the ruling was “the first step in a process that will continue.”
The upper hand would seem to be held by Whitman and Fiorina–and by the GOP in general–since the state ballot measure effectively banning same-sex marriage that started it all in 2008 passed by 52 percent. Coming out strong against gay rights could tap into that voter sentiment, and there’s certainly new frustration after the decision of a majority of the state's voters was nullified by a federal judge.
But even so, candidates are treating Prop 8 like the third rail. Why? Because the fault lines are already drawn, and there isn’t much ground to gain on either side. Urban centers like San Francisco and Los Angeles will keep fighting until it’s legal. And the state’s much more conservative Central Valley—from Bakersfield in the south to Redding in the north—will continue to rally to protect “traditional marriage." According to a state poll from last week, 42 percent of voters oppose same-sex marriage and a slim majority of 51 percent approve of it. That leaves only 7 percent undecided, or, in some cases, apathetic about whatever ends up becoming law.
Still, there is ground to lose. That 7 percent accounts for up to 1 million potential votes, and those voters aren’t likely to be swayed by hardliner candidates crusading for or against gay rights. Elections, as we often say here on the Gaggle, aren’t won on the extremes; they’re decided in the middle. And the only way to stay even remotely close to the middle on gay rights in California is to stay as far out of the melee as possible.