After mostly lying dormant for two elections cycle, will the culture wars make a comeback in 2012? There's a more than even chance of it.
One reason is that marriage amendments will be on the ballot in at least a handful of states that have stonewalled the issue for years. That's due to historic Republican gains in governorships and state legislatures around the country, often in areas where the GOP hasn't held the reins of power in decades, even centuries.
Look for Republicans to push for marriage amendments in Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Minnesota following significant gains in each state's legislature. In Iowa and New Hampshire, where homosexual marriage is legally recognized, straight-up marriage amendments are less probable. But GOP gains there could be a harbinger of a future reversal of same-sex marriage in both states.
In my home state of North Carolina, a marriage amendment would have passed years ago had it not been for the state's (now deposed) Democratic leadership, which wouldn't allow the bills out of committee. As in most states, a clear majority of Tar Heel voters support an amendment, and even many Democrats in the legislature signed on as co-sponsors of the bill in past sessions.
But there are political implications. Having the amendment on the ballot during an election year -- particularly a presidential one -- generates greater turnout in the Republican base. In conservative-leaning states like Indiana and North Carolina, that factor plays a major role.
Also significant in Indiana will be how Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels approaches the issue. Republicans re-captured control of the Indiana House on November 2, and a marriage amendment could be in the mix. Will Daniels, famous for his call for a "truce" on hot-button social issues, back that effort?
As if to deliver a subtle blow to Daniels' coyness on cultural concerns, voters in Iowa showed that America's fiscal woes haven't diverted attention entirely from moral issues. They threw out three state Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2009. To date, 30 states have adopted marriage amendments, compared to five that have legalized it either through legislation or judicial fiat. Here's the part the Republican establishment paradoxically relishes and loathes: social issues could significantly boost the GOP's presidential chances in 2012, as it did in 2004 and 2008. Six years ago, it significantly contributed to George W. Bush's re-election. Two years ago, John McCain would've lost by an even greater margin if marriage amendments hadn't been on the ballot.
The establishment relishes the reenergizing of the controversy it because it augments their chances of gaining power. But they loathe it because they've always loathed traditional conservatives, just like they loathe members of the Tea Party (and they doubly loathe the fact that the two groups mostly overlap).
Electoral history bears out the benefits that marriage amendments bring to GOP candidates. In both pro- and anti-GOP years, marriage amendments have fared better than moderate Republicans -- who, according to conventional wisdom, appeal to independents more readily and are more electable.
In 2008, moderate Republican poster boy John McCain lost California and Florida hands-down, but voters in both states still passed marriage amendments handily. In 2004 and 2006, scores of Republicans (both moderate and conservative) benefited from marriage amendments on the ballot. The issue doesn't hamper GOP candidates.
Abortion also is likely to emerge in the new session of Congress. Unlike the marriage issue, abortion has remained on conservatives' radar during the first two years of the Obama administration due to health care reform's expansion of taxpayer-subsidized abortion. The freshman class of the new House has been dubbed "the most pro-life" ever.
The sea change in state legislatures will likely result in action on abortion, too, even if the federal government does nothing. Republicans will push more state-level restrictions, such as parental notification laws or requiring abortionists to offer an ultrasound prior to the procedure.
Regardless, social issues will play a larger role in the 2012 election than they did this year, even if the economy worsens. The presence of marriage amendments on state ballots will make sure of it. At the federal level, the debate over abortion funding in ObamaCare will also reinvigorate pro-lifers.
Whether politicos like it or not, the culture wars aren't fading away.