Gay Marriage Issue Looms over Colorado Race

Efforts to ban gay marriage are back on the ballot this year in eight states, including Colorado. The Republican incumbent in the state's 4th district is a prominent supporter of the ban, and she's facing a vigorous challenge for re-election.

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Priorities can change quickly in politics. Gay marriage was the hot button election year issue in 2004. Not this year. The war, the economy and ethics dominate now. Still, voters in eight states will consider gay marriage bans this November. In Colorado the issue has also come up in a congressional race. Republican Representative Marilyn Musgrave has sponsored bills that would change the U.S. Constitution and ban gay marriage.

From Denver, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: The Fourth Congressional District covers the sprawling plains of eastern Colorado. It's rural and experiencing hard times. Farmers can't get enough water and home foreclosure rates are some of the highest in the nation. So some political observers were surprised when Marilyn Musgrave made this comment to a crowd of socially conservative voters in Washington, D.C. last month.

Representative MARILYN MUSGRAVE (Republican, Colorado): But as we face the issues that we're facing today, I don't think there's anything more important out there than the marriage issue.

BRADY: At a candidate forum in Loveland, Colorado, Musgrave's Democratic challenger, Angie Paccione, made political hay of the remark.

Ms. ANGIE PACCIONE (Democrat Congressional Candidate, Colorado): Are you kidding me? We are at war. We're trying to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Seniors are trying to decide between a full and a half dose of their prescription medicine.

BRADY: Musgrave says her comment was taken out of context.

Rep. MARILYN MUSGRAVE (Republican, Colorado): I was talking to people who came to a conference to talk about the social issues, whether it be the scurge of pornography, Internet predators, or abortion, or gay marriage. The most important of those was gay marriage.

BRADY: It's clear this is an important issue for Musgrave, though in her campaign speeches she rarely mentions marriage, but phrases like protecting our families and conservative values get the message across to her base. Christian conservatives like Karen Lesser(ph) of Laporte, Colorado believe Musgrave is doing God's work in Congress.

Ms. KAREN LESSER (Musgrave Supporter): The value that she is showing there is one that is God-honoring, and I think God will bless her for that.

BRADY: A recent poll shows Musgrave ahead of Paccione, but there's still a sizable group of unaffiliated voters who haven't made up their minds. Angie Paccione, who supports gay marriage, thinks she can win them over.

Ms. PACCIONE: I think that they live by the code of the West, which is essentially live and let live. And Marilyn has violated the code of the West. And so I think if they are ripe for a compelling alternative, and that's what I've tried to present to them.

BRADY: There was a mix of voters at the Loveland forum, and for many, gay marriage is not their top issue. Most mentioned things like immigration and healthcare. The big one is the war; and for Christian Chatnoni(ph), specifically Musgrave's support for the president and the war.

Ms. CHRISTIAN CHATNONI (Forum Participant): Well, I just know that she's a big supporter of George Bush and she's aligned herself with him, and I don't care for his policies, so...

BRADY: So you're feelings about the president then are going to have an effect on how you vote in this race.

Ms. CHATNONI: Definitely.

BRADY: Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer says big issues like the war do overshadow other matters. He says Musgrave may be realizing that wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion aren't quite as important to voters right now. Straayer says she's broadened the scope of her speeches to include issues like agriculture and Social Security.

Professor JOHN STRAAYER (Colorado State University): I interpret that as some recognition that the, you know, the one trick pony image that she had, you know, it was the moral agenda, and more and more the moral agenda was starting to wear thin and costing her votes.

BRADY: As a result, Musgrave's race against another Democrat in 2004 was closer than many expected. But Straayer says she learned her lesson. In addition to a message that consistently goes beyond gay marriage, the Republican has raised twice as much money as her opponent. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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