A referendum to roll back legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington State is a “wild card” in what Politico confirms will be this country’s most closely contested gubernatorial race.
SEATTLE — The political script playing out for Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate for governor of Washington, is one with which Americans are familiar: uncertainty over trust and a wariness of agendas.
This dynamic is always a challenge for a candidate running for office, particularly when concerns are emerging from voters expected to be a politician’s strongest supporters.
McKenna these days is at odds with some very recognizable conservative evangelical Christians — a voting bloc determined to repeal state legislation that legalizes same-sex marriage.
November’s Referendum 74 proposes to reject a same-sex marriage bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire in February.
In an interview with UW Election Eye, McKenna said he wants to make three things perfectly clear:
- He voted to expand the rights of domestic partners.
- He will not be voting to legalize same-sex marriage this November.
- “None of this has anything to do with whether I become governor,” he said.
Joseph Backholm disagrees, and he matters. Backholm is directly responsible for submitting more than twice the number of valid signatures required to put Referendum 74 on the November ballot.
“Nobody is going to get their ballot and wonder what Rob McKenna thinks about gay marriage. But a big turnout by social conservatives [on] Referendum 74 sure as heck helps McKenna become governor,” said Backholm, chairman of the Preserve Marriage Washington campaign.
McKenna surely recognizes this, yet he is adamant that he will not make his opposition to same-sex marriage a big part of his campaign to become the state’s first Republican governor since John Spellman 28 years ago. With the race between McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee too close to call, the stakes are high.
“McKenna is missing a huge opportunity to help himself [win] by not creating more of the awareness we need to reject gay marriage,” Backholm said. “People who vote with us will vote for McKenna.”
Backholm is not alone in his concerns.
“If you have to compromise on what’s most important to win, then you’re going to spend your whole time in office compromising,” said Pastor Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland. “[McKenna] will bury Inslee by a big margin if he shows the courage to passionately oppose gay marriage.
“I don’t think Rob has the intestinal fortitude to take a strong stand against things like gay marriage,” Hutcherson said. “I am very disappointed — extremely disappointed — in how he has handled moral issues like marriage. He is lukewarm about what matters most.”
Those words rankle McKenna, a Roman Catholic.
“I don’t need to respond to anybody on the issue,” McKenna said. “My position is clear. I’m not going to engage in a debate with people who don’t understand there is no net effect [favoring] either side by this referendum being on the ballot. I’ve always seen this as a close race.”
Republican political consultant Steve Beren, who was paid $1,000 by the McKenna campaign a year ago, said the tightening polls are forcing McKenna’s hand on how he handles — even downplays — the hot potato of same-sex marriage for undecided independent voters.
“Muted support is still support. Muted opposition is still opposition,” said Beren, an evangelical Christian who has twice lost by landslide margins to longtime Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott from Washington’s 7th District.
“I may disagree with Rob McKenna on some issues,” Beren added, “but I draw a distinction between those disagreements and his tactical and strategic choices of emphasis.”
McKenna is determined to more heartily emphasize job creation, government reform, and education instead of a polarizing referendum. “The people of our state will decide this [marriage issue],” McKenna said, “and that’s how it should be.”
Backholm offered faint defense of McKenna, who has successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Every campaign adviser will tell you to avoid social issues at all costs,” said Backholm. “We’re glad he supports our position [against same-sex marriage], but this is not Rob McKenna’s campaign. This is the people’s campaign. We realize Rob has other fish to fry.”
Hutcherson helped orchestrate a Mayday for Marriage rally at the State Capitol in Olympia seven years ago. Gov. Gregoire had been sworn in weeks earlier, McKenna had been elected to replace her as attorney general, and Hutcherson was going out of his way to praise voters’ judgment in seating a Republican as the state’s top lawyer.
At the time, Hutcherson lauded McKenna as the “right guy at the right time.” But last week Hutcherson said he would rather see McKenna “stand up for the truth and lose” than be timid in his opposition to same-sex marriage.
McKenna weighs his convictions, sees the poll numbers, and hangs his hat on this calculation: conservative evangelicals will vote for him.
But whether enough of them turn out is the gamble he’s taking with his promising political future.
Stephanie Kim and Kirsten Johnson provided research for this report.