The shrinking Republican tent (part 3)

The New York State Senate voted down a bill to legalize same-sex marriage last week, with all 30 Republicans in the chamber voting no. Five GOP senators had been expected to vote for the measure, and one of them looked dejected as he cast his “no” vote.

I don’t know whether the moderate New York Republicans broke promises to support the bill (as the lead sponsor claimed), faced unexpected pressure from caucus leaders to vote no, or were spooked by what happened during the special election campaign in New York’s 23rd Congressional district:

You surely remember that in the eyes of conservative activists [Republican nominee] Dede Scozzafava’s primary sin was to have voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the state Assembly; that helped fuel the fire against her and it contributed to organized national groups’ decision to move into the district. That must have frightened some senators into thinking a primary challenger could gain a lot of traction if they vote “yes;” […]

All I know is that in New York state, which produced legendary liberal Republicans like Senator Jacob Javits and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, there is no political space for a Republican elected official to support same-sex marriage rights.

Here in Iowa, Republicans would be committing political suicide if they left any doubt about their views same-sex marriage. Our conservatives can’t tolerate even a retired Republican who speaks out for marriage equality. Former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning taught us that lesson last month.

Corning caused a firestorm in the Republican race for governor when news leaked that she had recorded a robocall for the LGBT advocacy group One Iowa. Numerous Republican households received the following message:

Hi this is former Lt. Governor Joy Corning.

   Iowa has a well-deserved reputation of being open minded and fair. That’s why I’m a supporter of One Iowa. Our Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples, continuing Iowa’s tradition of protecting the civil rights of all Iowans.

   Please join with me to ensure that Iowa continues to move forward as a leader in fairness and equality.

Iowa Family Policy Center Action’s president Chuck Hurley warned, “Joy Corning has given us another clear example of just exactly why as Christians and conservatives we should no longer sacrifice our convictions for perceived political victories. When we elect people like Joy Corning, we elevate and advance the destruction of the family.”

Because Corning served in Terry Branstad’s administration, rival candidate Bob Vander Plaats pounced on the story to accuse Branstad of being unclear about his stand on gay marriage. Vander Plaats’ stump speech includes a pledge not to choose a moderate running mate.

Conservative opinion leaders opened fire on Corning. Over at The Iowa Republican blog, Krusty Konservative called her “Branstad’s Rev. Wright” and a “Pro-Abortion, Pro-Gay Marriage attention whore.” Meanwhile, Craig Robinson suspected she may have had ulterior motives:

[T]he call itself is strange in that it doesn’t even ask people to attend the upcoming December 3rd Waterloo Marriage Equality Public Forum that is being put on by One Iowa. Instead, the call, which only targeted Republicans, seems to be politically motivated.

By having Lt. Governor Corning make the automated calls, One Iowa has been able to enter the political conversation once again and drive attention to their issue and the events that they are hosting around the state. Additionally, Corning’s call might have also been orchestrated by gay activists and liberal Democrats to lessen the chance that Branstad will win the Republican nomination for governor.

Either way, it is odd for a woman who has publicly stated that she supports Branstad to do something that would cause him and his campaign so much grief. It makes one wonder if Corning isn’t being honest about her support of Branstad or if groups like One Iowa and other liberal Democrats are taking advantage of the 77 year-old former Lt. Governor in hopes to advance their own political agenda.

Talk about a weak conspiracy theory. Corning did not suddenly come out for marriage equality last month. She and former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson (who served under Tom Vilsack) co-authored a letter to the Des Moines Register on the subject a year ago. Corning’s support for same-sex civil marriage rights is one reason the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa gave her an award in May. This is a deep-seated belief for her:

Corning, 77, is a member of Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, which prides itself on its long-time support of civil rights, including same-sex marriage. […]

Corning said she is not aware of any of her family members who are gay or lesbian but noted that she has many friends who are and have had long-term, healthy and committed relationships.  Those couples deserve the same rights as other families, she said.

Not only that, Corning has long been on record trying to create more space for social moderates in the Iowa GOP. Naturally, she wants to help One Iowa “reach out to the entire state, regardless of political affiliation.” Likewise, it makes sense for One Iowa to direct her recorded message to Republican households, especially in Black Hawk County. Corning represented Cedar Falls in the Iowa Senate during the 1980s.

Krusty doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of advocacy organizations:

Joy, what the hell are you doing? You say you support Branstad, but you do things that harm his campaign. I love how Joy wants the Republican Party to have a big tent, but she actually funds and serves organizations whose main purpose is to defeat Republican candidates.

Joy Corning isn’t a Republican. If she was, she wouldn’t serve on the board of Planned Parenthood, an organization that organized thousands of volunteers to help get Chet Culver elected in 2006. Look, I know there are pro-choice Republicans, but there is a big difference in a pro-choice Republicans who donate and volunteer to help defeat Republicans and pro-choices people who just disagree with the Republican platform.

In reality, Planned Parenthood’s PAC has supported pro-choice Republican candidates, most recently State Senator Maggie Tinsman in her unsuccessful attempt to fight off Dave Hartsuch’s primary challenge in 2006. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Iowa had other pro-choice Republican legislators, and they received Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. The Republican Party’s failure to nominate and elect pro-choice legislators is not Corning’s fault.

Similarly, One Iowa would be thrilled to endorse Republican candidates or legislators who supported marriage equality, if any existed.

The Branstad campaign seemed unsure how to handle this story. At first spokesman Tim Albrecht noted that Corning supports Branstad for governor, a sign that he can build a “broad coalition.” But to be on the safe side, the campaign issued a special statement on gay marriage the next day:

Governor Branstad supports the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and is the only Iowa Governor to have signed the Defense of Marriage Act. He will work to break the legislative roadblock that prevents Iowans from having an opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Should such a constitutional amendment ever be placed on the ballot, Governor Branstad will vote yes on its passage.

Branstad declined to comment further on the matter for more than a week. When the story didn’t go away, he made some reasonable comments:

Branstad says he’ll “fight” for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage in Iowa, but Branstad says he still “respects (Corning’s) point of view” on the issue.

“And I understand some people who are new to politics just don’t understand that,” Branstad says. […]

“Just because somebody is your adversary on one issue, they may be your best ally on the next,” Branstad says.

That’s better than what some other Republicans have said about Corning, but I think Branstad missed an opportunity here. He is fortunate to have her support. Remember, he refused to endorse her own gubernatorial campaign in 1998. Just a few weeks ago, he told a group of social conservatives that he picked Corning “for purely political reasons.”

Branstad’s lucky Corning continues to call herself a Republican; as Lynda Waddington wrote, people in Corning’s situation often find switching parties easier than “standing up within their political party and demanding that an opposing viewpoint be heard and acknowledged.”

If Corning weren’t so committed to giving GOP moderates a voice, she could announce “the party left me” and endorse Chet Culver. Then Branstad would have to deal with unflattering media coverage about why his former lieutenant doesn’t want to send him back to Terrace Hill.

Anyway, Corning is not an isolated Republican voice, even if moderates like her are greatly outnumbered. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from September found that 10 percent of Republican respondents favored or strongly favored the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that cleared the way for same-sex marriage. There are currently about 578,000 active Republican voters in Iowa, so if the Register’s poll was in the ballpark, more than 50,000 Iowa Republicans agree with Corning. Yet not a single public figure represents their views.

Branstad could have shown real leadership by defending Corning’s record of service against her attackers. She’s done more for Republicans over a lifetime than most of her critics. Branstad could have denounced those who would keep driving moderates away from the GOP.

Speaking of missed opportunities, what about Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn? Since he was selected as party leader in January, he has tried to broaden the party’s appeal. He tends to downplay social issues, to the point that some conservatives complained he didn’t speak out enough against the Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

Last month would have been a perfect time for Strawn to step up and say that while he disagrees with Corning’s views, he respects her and values diversity in the GOP. As far as I know, he said nothing about the controversy. His weekly e-mail blasts and public statements have mostly been about economic and fiscal issues.

If Strawn wants social moderates to vote Republican, he shouldn’t just stand by while the loudest voices in his party treat Corning like a crazy old aunt.

Since some conservatives view Corning as “baggage” for Branstad, her name will probably be in the news again before the gubernatorial primary next June. As the daughter of a Rockefeller Republican, I appreciate her activism. Sadly, it will be a long time before any elected Republican feels safe enough to follow her example.

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