Missouri's Mixed Messages

Missouri voters chose to ban gay marriage; but they also gave Democrats a strong candidate for governor.

| Thu Aug. 5, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

"Show-Me State" voters showed up in record numbers for Missouri’s primary election Tuesday, and they made history. With polls indicating a close election there in November, the day’s results brought a mix of good and bad news for both Republicans and Democrats.

Missouri became the first state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage since the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled to allow the practice. The state also became the first in 10 years to oust a sitting governor in his party’s primary.

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While the gay marriage ban was expected to pass, it did so by a surprisingly large margin, and turnout was the highest since the state began keeping primary records in 1980. About 71 percent of Missouri voters supported the measure despite the presence of an anti-gay marriage law already on the books. As the Kansas City Star reports, the amendment also passed despite its opponents outspending supporters by a large margin. (They mounted a $300,000 campaign.) The amendment did well across the state, with more than 80 percent support in rural areas, a majority in most suburbs, and a narrow majority in Kansas City.

Even in the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis, the amendment gained more than 46 percent of the vote. Perhaps most disheartening for gay-rights activists, more than 846,000 Democrats voted Tuesday, compared to about 604,000 Republicans. Given the margin of victory, a large number of Democrats clearly voted for the amendment.

Gay-marriage supporters have little time to mourn the loss, as seven other states in the next three months will vote on changing their state constitutions to outlaw gay marriage – and Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska and Nebraska have already passed such amendments. When the federal attempt at an amendment failed last month, many opponents argued that gay marriage should be left to the states to decide. Groups like Human Rights Campaign, which spent $60,000 trying to stop the Missouri amendment, are finding little success in that approach. As HRC coordinator Seth Kilbourn said:

"I think we'll definitely have an uphill battle. But I do think we'll have more time in other states to educate voters and talk about what the amendments are really about."

For the Kerry campaign, the overwhelming support for the amendment can’t help. Both John Kerry and John Edwards oppose gay marriage, but also opposed amending the constitution in response. With Missouri voters willing to take such a drastic step, George Bush might be able to use gay marriage as a wedge issue in a state that narrowly supported him in 2000.

Kerry got better news in the Missouri gubernatorial race, where state auditor Claire McCaskill defeated Gov. Bob Holden in the Democratic primary. Holden - who Republicans nicknamed "One-Term Bob" - battled a budget crisis nearly from the start of his term, cut millions of dollars from popular programs to balance said budget, and oversaw the Republican takeover of the Senate for the first time in decades. Lawmakers overrode three of Holden’s vetoes last year alone – the same number of overrides the state had previously seen since the Civil War.

"He's a victim of circumstance," said St. Louis University political science professor Kenneth Warren. "He is like so many governors in the United States who went through hard times amid a budgetary collapse. The Republicans in Missouri went after this guy in the most aggressive way imaginable. They sort of beat him to a pulp."

Democrats reportedly saw electability as a key reason for McCaskill’s victory in an expensive and bitter primary against the embattled Holden. Polls already give her a narrow edge against Republican Matt Blunt, the current secretary of state and the son of Rep. Roy Blunt. Holden has already met with McCaskill and called for party unity. As political scientist Dave Robertson told the Associated Press:

"As bitter as this Democratic primary has been, it is not as bitter as the 1992 Republican primary for governor. The Democrats are really hungry to win this fall, and that should give them incentive to find unity."

McCaskill has already fielded congratulatory calls from the likes of Terry McAuliffe, Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius. And John Kerry was quick to praise McCaskill, who Democrats hope can boost the national ticket in Missouri:

"Claire is a strong leader who will rally women, men, Democrats, Republicans and the hundreds of thousands of independent voters in the Show Me State. Together, Claire and I are going to win in Missouri come November."
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