Just two years ago, almost 62 percent of Ohio voters approved a state amendment prohibiting legal recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions.
This is important for understanding the current Senate race in next-door Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Rick Santorum faces a formidable challenge from Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.
The Ohio vote reflected national political trends in favor of defending traditional values generally and marriage specifically. The same trends could ultimately tip the balance in Pennsylvania's Santorum-Casey contest.
Twenty states in recent years have voted on amendments to ban same-sex marriage. All 20 amendments won. After the 2004 presidential election, an exit poll conducted for the major television networks indicated that when voters were asked which issue -- education, taxes, health care, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs or moral values -- was most important in determining their vote, the largest bloc, 22 percent, picked moral values.
Of these, 80 percent voted for Republican President George Bush over Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. The importance of moral values may have been particularly decisive among Catholics, who historically tended to vote Democratic. Kerry is Catholic, but Bush won 52 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide. In Ohio, sharing the ballot with the marriage amendment, Bush won 65 percent of Catholic votes.
A post-2004 dilemma for Democrats: Find a way to win back "values voters" and stop the erosion of their support among Catholics.
In this year's Pennsylvania Senate race -- in a state that's 31 percent Catholic -- they seemed to find an answer in Bob Casey Jr.
Casey is the son of Pennsylvania's late, beloved Gov. Bob Casey, an Irish Catholic who became a legend among pro-lifers when he was refused a speaking spot at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his opposition to abortion.
Like his father, Casey is a liberal Democrat who is pro-life. That arguably puts him in perfect position to win back those socially conservative Democrats who defected in the past to Santorum, a pro-life Catholic of Italian descent, who (like Casey's father) is well-known for his outspoken traditionalism.
It has been little noticed until now, however, that Casey Jr. has embraced the gay-rights movement, which is bent on changing the nation's marriage and adoption laws -- putting it at odds with the Catholic Church and "values voters."
The gay-rights movement has embraced Casey back. Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which describes itself as "America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality," has made him the leading beneficiary of its fund-raising efforts in this election cycle. According to Opensecrets.org, Casey easily tops the list of recipients of HRC-related contributions with $51,946.
In part, the gay-rights movement has embraced Casey because they despise Santorum, who in 2003 unapologetically criticized the argument gay-rights groups made in the Supreme Court for declaring same-sex sodomy a constitutional right.
Casey, meanwhile, has flip-flopped on adoption of children by gays. (In a 2002 questionnaire submitted to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference -- the state's Catholic bishops organization -- he said he opposed "legislation allowing homosexual couples to adopt children." In a 2004 questionnaire submitted to PCC, he reversed course, saying he opposed "legislation prohibiting homosexual couples from adopting children.")
An HRC webpage soliciting contributions for Casey applauds his "commitment to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality," his opposition to "the Federal Marriage Amendment" and his belief "that adoption decisions should be made without prohibitions or limitations based on the sexual orientation of the parents."
"I don't support gay marriage, but I also don't support a constitutional amendment banning it," Casey told The Philadelphia Jewish Voice in October 2005. "However, I do support same sex unions that would give gay couples all the rights, privileges and protections of marriage."
That position put Casey at odds with the proposed Pennsylvania Marriage Amendment, which, like Ohio's, prohibits legal recognition of same-sex unions. The amendment was approved 137-60 in the Pennsylvania statehouse in June, but then stalled in the state senate when it was stripped of the language prohibiting recognition of same sex unions, before passing 38 to 12. (In Pennsylvania, an amendment cannot be placed on the ballot until it has passed both legislative houses in identical form in two consecutive legislative sessions.)
Over two days, I left repeated voicemails with Casey spokesman Larry Smar asking him to directly state Casey's position on the Pennsylvania Marriage Amendment. Smar didn't return my calls. But a Feb. 28 article in the Harrisburg Patriot News about the state marriage amendment said, "One of the few politicians to speak against the amendment is state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who is running against U.S. Senator Rick Santorum."
A Quinnipiac poll released Aug. 15 showed Santorum had pulled within 6 points of Casey after trailing by 18 in June. Can Casey hold on as socially conservative Pennsylvanians learn more about where he stands on marriage?
I wouldn't bet against Santorum.