Maine could become the first state to endorse gay marriage by popular referendum Tuesday, as voters head to the polls to decide whether to repeal a recently-passed law legalizing unions between people of the same gender.
One year after California's Proposition 8 struck down gay marriage in the largest state in the Union, this sparsely populated New England state has become the latest battleground in the debate over the definition of marriage, offering supporters of same-sex marriage the chance for a political breakthrough and giving opponents an opening to thwart gay rights advances in the heart of the deep-blue Northeast.
Maine became the fifth New England state to enact gay marriage last May, when Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill passed by Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature. Voters could repeal that law by supporting Question One on Tuesday, making Maine the latest in a long string of states to reject gay unions when put to a popular vote.
Recent polls have shown Mainers split down the middle between the "yes" and "no" positions on the ballot measure. A Public Policy Polling automated survey released Monday showed the initiative striking down gay marriage leading by four points, 51 percent to 47 percent, but two polls last week contradicted that finding by reporting opponents of the measure ahead by four and 11 points. Turnout, say operatives on both sides of the issue, is the wild card in the contest.
Advocates of same-sex marriage are optimistic that ballot box history won't repeat itself in Maine. Having learned the lessons of their loss in California, they say, the "No on One" campaign could break their seemingly endless series of defeats in popular elections.
"We walked into this fight in a much better position than we have in other parts of the country. This is something that I think the people of Maine have had the opportunity to get used to-all of their neighboring states have had marriage equality for a while now," said Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.
In California, gay marriage supporters were surprised by the intensity of organized support for Proposition 8 and underestimated the impact of television ads warning voters that legalizing gay unions could change the way children are taught about marriage in schools.
This year, Maine-based activists focused their efforts early on making an emotional pitch with ads and speeches featuring gay families talking about what marriage means to them.
One spot featured a Lewiston grandmother with her son, his partner and their child, saying: "I've been a Catholic all my life ... Marriage, to me, is a great institution that works and it's what I want for my children, too."
"They did a very good job of humanizing the issue," said state Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican who voted for the marriage equality law and opposes Question One. "They had gay couples inviting themselves into the Rotary Club and talking about what it's like to live in a world where it's possible to discriminate against somebody just because they're a same-sex couple."
Mills, who was the GOP nominee for governor in 2002 and is running again for the position in 2010 , said the message that had worked for opponents of gay marriage on the West Coast hadn't translated well to Maine.
"The only message they seemed to have was this idea of scaring you into thinking that the kids in school are going to be taught about same-sex marriage," Mills said. "A lot of people shrugged their shoulders and said, 'yeah? What's the big deal, now?'"
Supporters of the proposed gay marriage ban remain optimistic that Maine-which has rejected gay rights at the polls several times in the past -will hand social conservatives at least a narrow victory. And Tom McClusky, vice president for government relations at the Family Research Council, said Maine's traditionalists had thrown themselves headlong into the fight over Question One.
"From everything I've seen, they're very fired up," said McClusky. "I think the mobilization of the churches is key and I think they understand how this can affect their liberties."
But, he said, gay marriage supporters had benefited from focusing their efforts on a small state with inexpensive media and a track record of quirky, independent politics. The same electorate that sends the nation's two most liberal GOP senators to Washington, and that rejected both parties to give an independent governor two terms in the 1990s, made an appealing target for advocates looking to make history.
"I think that's why they chose it very carefully. California, many people think it's liberal, but it's a very big state and you can't classify it that easily," McClusky explained. "But it's very easy to turn a legislature in New Hampshire or throw a couple of bucks the right way in Maine and get what you want."
Marc Mutty, the chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, a group backing the ballot initiative, said the message that had worked for anti-gay marriage organizations in California was working in parts of Maine that remain conservative, rural or devoutly Catholic.
"Our campaign has talked incessantly about how this is going to be taught in schools, or would be taught in schools," Mutty said.
"You'd have teachers talking about marriage being between any two individuals," he added. "For those that believe it is between a man and a woman, who hold those values from a very deeply held place, religious or otherwise, you're looking at some real cultural clashes there."
Still, Mainers of both parties say there's a tradition of libertarian, live-and-let-live politics in the state that makes its electorate even more receptive to a socially liberal agenda than neighboring New Hampshire, which also passed a gay marriage law through the Legislature earlier this year.
"Even in the conservative areas, they don't like the government telling them what to do and making choices for them," said former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served as a Republican senator from Maine and has not taken a position on Question One. "Maine people in particular are very open to change, even though it's a moderate-to-conservative state overall."
Steve Rowe, a former state attorney general running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010, agreed.
"It's about respect. It's about equality and it's about fairness. And I think those are things that Maine people understand," Rowe said. "My expectation is that there will be a 'no' vote, that the law will go into effect and Maine people will move on."
The national groups on both sides of the marriage issue will keep on fighting, whatever the outcome. Solomonese told POLITICO that legislative battles over same-sex marriage in New York and New Jersey would be his group's next targets. For McClusky, state legislative elections in 2010 provide an opportunity to campaign for repealing gay marriage laws in Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire.
"A loss would be bad, but we would just have to concentrate more on the other states," McClusky said.
From the opposite side of the fight, Solomonese echoed that sentiment: "What's next on the docket? New York and New Jersey. Win or loss isn't going to influence them one way or the other in New York and New Jersey."