Terry Branstad's balancing act on gay marriage

In a private meeting last October, Terry Branstad warned social conservatives that gay marriage was “not going to be a central issue” in the gubernatorial campaign, and that Republicans “have to use finesse, and not overplay our hand.”

Since Branstad officially launched his candidacy last week, we’re starting to see how he intends to “finesse” the marriage issue before the Republican primary in June.

Branstad’s comeback speech focused on promises to increase jobs and wages while shrinking the size of government. He hits the same notes in his stump speech, and last Friday in Sioux City, one conservative called out his omission:

The former four-time governor laid out four goals he vowed to accomplish within five years – creating jobs, increasing income levels, reducing state government and reforming education.

The fact that Branstad didn’t mention overturning the Supreme Court ruling resulted in criticism from Woodbury County Republican Party Chairman Brian Rosener of Bronson.

Branstad said he does support a statewide constitutional amendment setting marriage as only between a man and a woman and criticized Democrats for sitting on the issue in the Iowa Legislature.

At his event in Waterloo last Thursday, a similar pattern ensued. Branstad didn’t lead with his position on same-sex marriage, but when an audience member asked him whether he supported a referendum on the issue, he “emphatically said that he would, and then reminded people that he was the governor who signed the defense of marriage law.”

Branstad went even farther saying, “I don’t think it’s right or fair for one leader in the Senate or the House to deny the people a vote on an issue of this importance. I don’t think other legislators should stand back and say ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about it,’ because they can replace the leader who is that unresponsive and unwilling to give the people a right to vote.”

GOP insider Craig Robinson paraphrased that statement and made it sound more emphatic in the headline for today’s lead story on The Iowa Republican blog: “Branstad Urges Legislative Democrats: Replace Your Leader if They Will Not Allow You A Vote On Marriage.”

So, Branstad assures social conservatives that he’s on their side against those big bad Democrats in the Iowa legislature. Not only that, he has promised publicly and privately that he will choose a “pro-family” running mate this time around. (I resent the implication that former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning isn’t pro-family, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Iowa Republican blog wants readers to know how strongly Branstad feels about this issue:

At his event in Waterloo and in his interview with TheIowaRepublican.com, Branstad displayed plenty of passion on this issue of gay marriage. Not only did the former Governor provide a clear roadmap for Republicans to follow that would allow them to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, he also showed a willingness to go even further than groups like [Iowa Family Policy Center] are willing to go by advocating the use of the constitutional convention option that is available to voters in November. […]

Maybe the most surprising part of the interview was the when Branstad talked about another option that Iowans have to overturn the court’s decision, the constitutional convention which is on the ballot in 2010.

Branstad said that as Governor, he would offer to preside over such a convention. While groups like IFPC are afraid to explore the constitutional convention option because they concede that Mike Gronstal will remain in his leadership role, Branstad thinks the idea is worth exploring. He also added that, no matter what comes out of the constitutional convention, the people of Iowa still must vote on each proposed change to the state’s constitution.

The constitutional convention is by far the quickest route to overturning the Court’s decision on gay marriage. It’s also conceivable that, should Republicans and traditional marriage advocates opt to go down that road, other issues could also be addressed. In addition to marriage, groups like Iowans for Tax Relief could work on amending the constitution so that it includes a 99% spending limitation. Second amendment advocates could strengthen gun rights, and individual property rights could also be addressed. This would also be an opportunity to constitutionally limit the power of the courts so as to prevent the courts from attempting to make law in the future.

After talking with Branstad on the issue of marriage, it seems as though his position on marriage has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, or perhaps not clearly communicated until recently. In any event, it’s clear that Branstad fully supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage and is open to the idea of a constitutional convention to more quickly accomplish that end.

An initiative on convening a constitutional assembly automatically goes before Iowa voters once every ten years, and 2010 happens to be the year it will appear on the ballot. Shortly after the Iowa Supreme Court issued its Varnum v Brien ruling, political observers speculated about how that process might play out. It could potentially put a marriage vote before Iowans years before the regular amendment process. But conservative leaders never embraced that path to changing the constitution, because Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has made clear that he would use a constitutional convention to pursue “a lot of good, progressive issues,” including “a woman’s right to choose, guaranteed health care for all Iowa citizens, [and] workers’ rights […].”

Robinson depicts Branstad as more passionate about moving quickly to end gay marriage than even the leading lights of Iowa’s religious right. What Branstad actually said about the constitutional convention seems more ambiguous. He “would offer to preside over” such a convention as governor. However, as I wrote last April,

If [the ballot initiative] passes, the legislature would have to come up with a process for selecting delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and the statute provides very little guidance on how this would be done. The governor plays no role in these decisions; it would be up to the Iowa legislature to approve rules on selecting constitutional delegates.

Robinson writes that Branstad thinks the constitutional convention “is worth exploring.” Does that mean Branstad will urge Iowans to vote for convening a constitutional assembly, assuming he wins the Republican nomination for governor? If so, will he acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely the legislature would choose him to lead the assembly, since Republicans have almost no chance of retaking the Iowa Senate this year?

I hope other journalists will press Branstad to clarify his position on a constitutional convention. Is he willing to spend political capital this fall to get that ballot initiative passed, even though no Republican or conservative interest group supports that strategy? Or is he just hypothetically willing to go along if voters take that route?

I also want to know more about what Republican moderates are hearing privately from the Branstad camp about same-sex marriage. This weekend I ran into a Republican acquaintance who supports marriage equality. (Yes, they exist. In the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from September 2009, 10 percent of Republican respondents said they either favored or strongly favored the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed same-sex marriage. As of January 2010, there were about 578,000 active Republican voters in Iowa, so if the Register’s poll was in the ballpark, at least 50,000 Iowa Republicans support marriage equality.)

Anyway, my Republican acquaintance has been asked to endorse Branstad but is hesitating in case Branstad goes all out for a constitutional amendment on marriage. One of this person’s friends says don’t worry about that, because the governor can’t do anything to pass an amendment–it’s all up to the legislature.

I am curious to know whether other moderate Republicans are hearing similar talking points; that is, whether Branstad supporters are assuring them that he won’t be in a position to overturn same-sex marriage if he gets elected. If you have any stories to share, please post a comment in this thread or contact me confidentially: desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

Branstad’s former top aide and close confidant Doug Gross has advised Republicans to be cautious in how they use the marriage issue. Without question, Branstad talks about gay marriage more cautiously than his rivals. Bob Vander Plaats says he’ll issue an exective order halting same-sex marriage on day one as governor. Chris Rants now promises to veto every bill the legislature sends him until legislators allow a floor vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Even mild-mannered Rod Roberts mentions giving Iowans the right to vote on the definition of marriage in his introductory radio ads.

Branstad appears likely to coast to the nomination, but floating the constitutional convention idea may signal that he feels some pressure to show he’s committed to ending gay marriage.

Share any thoughts about marriage equality or the governor’s race in this thread.

UPDATE: In this comment thread at The Iowa Republican, I suggested that perhaps Craig Robinson was reading too much into Branstad’s comments on the constitutional convention. Robinson responded:

You are correct. I am an advocate of the constitutional convention. I do want to be clear; I did not ask him about it, he is the one who brought it up in our conversation. I think that I conveyed his thoughts on this pretty well. He’s not afraid of it, he’s open to the idea, and thinks that there are a number of things that could be addressed.

LATE UPDATE: It didn’t take long for Branstad’s position on gay marriage to become even less coherent.

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