Going against conventional wisdom, thankfully

Posted: Jun 12, 2006 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- Several red-hot election issues were road-tested last week and came up short of conventional political expectations.

The constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman was to be the social war of the decade -- again -- plunging the states into a lengthy ratification battle that some said could tear the country apart. But the effort in the Senate could not muster a simple majority for the proposal, let alone the 60 votes needed to begin formal debate or the higher 67 votes to approve it.

Many Americans, according to national polls, don't believe in state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. But they were divided over whether this was an issue that should be embedded into the U.S. Constitution that sets forth the governing rules for our national government.

An ABC poll released last week showed that 42 percent of Americans supported a constitutional ban, a sizeable number, but far from the kind of support to meet the Founding Fathers' two-thirds test.

For more than two centuries, issues of family law have pretty much been left up to the states to decide, and there is a reluctance in our body politic to begin putting social issues into the nation's chief legal document.

After all, it isn't as if the states have ignored this issue. At last count, more than two-thirds of state legislatures have approved constitutional amendments or statutes that ban same-sex marriage.

I certainly support such bans by the states. This is probably where the issue should be settled, at least for now. But it's not going away. A similar amendment failed in 2004 and supporters will be back to try again, though not a few years yet.

Meanwhile, the Senate's message, beyond the marriage issue, seems to be that the U.S. Constitution is not the place to deal with family or moral laws.

Another event that went against the grain of conventional wisdom was last week's special congressional election in California where the GOP kept control of a seat that was the Democrats' No. 1 target and a chief test of their "culture of corruption" campaign against Republicans.

After months of congressional polls showing that the GOP was in danger of losing House seats in vulnerable districts, the race to replace convicted Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham with a Democrat seemed more than likely. Republican officials were telling me the week before that things "don't look good for us" and were preparing to argue why this race would have little impact on the November elections.

The news media smelled blood, and their stories were playing up the possibility of a Democratic win in a Republican-drawn district that would be spun as a harbinger of deeper GOP losses in the fall. It didn't happen.

The National Republican Congressional Committee poured nearly $5 million into the contest, put some 200 volunteers into a voter turnout drive throughout the district, and former Congressman Brian Bilbray pulled out a victory with 49 percent of the vote.

Two key issues, and a tactical strategy, were tested in the race. Bilbray took a tough-on-illegal-immigration stand that threw his liberal Democratic opponent, Francine Busby, on the defensive. She shot herself in the foot in the final week of the race when she told a Hispanic supporter, "You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help." That sparked a firestorm that stopped her momentum in the closing days. She won 45 percent of the vote.

The outcome also showed that the Democrats' "culture of corruption" campaign slogan had little if any impact, even in a district that was Ground Zero for the biggest congressional bribery scandal in years that sent Duke Cunningham to prison. It is now believed in senior GOP leadership circles that the corruption issue will have little or no traction beyond lawmakers directly implicated in the lobbying scandal.

Certainly, there is a danger of overanalyzing the significance of one special election. But if we are to believe that the political environment is as bad for Republicans as the analysts and pundits say it is, then Democrats should have done better. Busby polled no better than Sen. John Kerry's anemic vote in the district in 2004.

Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest tactical road-test for the Republicans in this race was its turnout drive. That effort was only a small microcosm of the massive, national campaign that will be deployed for the fall, identifying GOP voters, registering them, getting them to the polls. In this case, the Republican National Committee's well-oiled, all-volunteer machinery worked as it was planned. When fully deployed in the fall, the GOP's turnout army will number more than 1.5 million trained volunteers, something the Democrats are nowhere near matching at this point in the 2006 campaign.