florida-county-map.gifBy Wayne Besen

With Republicans deeply dissatisfied with their presidential candidates they have turned to chicanery to try to steal the 2008 election. This time, they have recruited surrogates on the Religious Right to place a constitutional amendment banning gay unions on the ballot. Although they deny their intentions are politically motivated, it can hardly be a coincidence that the Republican Party of Florida was the largest contributor of the petition drive, funneling $300,000 of the $557,000 raised.

Such cynical manipulation worked wonders for the Republicans in 2004 – when they used this strategy to turn out right wing voters in droves. In total, there are now 27 states that have constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage equality. The anti-marriage train seemed unstoppable until it was derailed in Arizona, where voters narrowly rejected a ban by a 52-48 vote.

The key to this desert victory was that voters were persuaded that the proposed amendment would affect domestic partner benefits for unmarried heterosexual partners – particularly senior citizens. This message could resonate in Florida with its huge population of seniors. Indeed, informing this demographic of the consequences of passing this amendment appears to be the central strategy in defeating it.

“Because of how the laws are structured on Social Security, they’ve [senior citizens] set up their households together as opposed to getting married because they would be penalized in terms of eligibility,” Bentley Lipscomb, AARP’s 1999-2006 state director, told The Florida Times-Union. “The way that amendment is worded, it would affect those individuals even though they’re not homosexual.”

Unfortunately, John Stemberger, state chairman of the Florida4Marriage.org campaign has also studied the Arizona battle.

“They know from the 27 others states whose citizens passed marriage amendments, that if they debate homosexual marriage straight up, they will lose,” said Stemberger. “Shame on them for such desperate tactics in trying to scare Florida’s most vulnerable and precious citizens – our seniors.”

Stemberger is very good at distilling the argument and articulating his side of the debate. He is also a polished presence on television, making him a force to be reckoned with. The campaign countering the amendment, Florida Red and Blue, has raised approximately $2 million dollars. Nonetheless, if they don’t find a spokesperson to match the rhetorical skills of Stemberger, they will be defeated in November 2008 – no matter how much money they raise.

We will also see a huge amount of ex-gay propaganda – as the largest such group, Exodus International – is headquartered in Orlando. Exodus will rally the faithful on the crucial I-4 corridor, (Tampa, Orlando, Daytona Beach) which contains the swing voters that usually decide statewide elections. If Florida Red and Blue does not grapple with this reality early on, they will likely lose the ballot initiative. The indisputable fact is, people don’t vote favorably who think homosexuality can be changed through prayer or therapy.

This fight has huge consequences that will reverberate throughout the nation. If Florida can pull an Arizona, it will signal that marriage amendments are no longer a silver bullet for Republicans to win elections. Of course, the religious right is going to fight like mad, as they can’t afford a defeat in the Deep South. Florida is going to prove to be a financial and emotional drain for both sides in 2008.

The good news is that the proposal will need a 60 percent super majority to become a part of the state Constitution. Still, it will be a nasty battle with an uncertain outcome. Many people who winter in Miami Beach don’t realize how conservative parts of central and northern Florida truly are.

The key to winning this fight is enlisting the help of Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. He should be encouraged to follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California in 1979 came out against a ballot initiative that would ban gay schoolteachers. With his support, the anti-gay initiative went down in flames.

So far, Crist has been unpredictable. In July, he said he would “probably vote for it”, yet, he instructed the Republican Party to stop funding the effort.

“There are things that give me greater concern like cutting property taxes and paying school teachers more,” said Crist.

Crist left wiggle room by saying “probably” and clearly offered his rationale for possibly opposing the measure. Florida Red and Blue has wisely formed a bipartisan coalition and the Republicans involved in this effort should strongly lobby Crist. If our side can place Crist in the shoes of Reagan – every Republican’s dream – it can likely win him over.

Florida is a must-win state that will not only help determine who is President, but the future of marriage battles in America. Expect another hot November in the Sunshine State.