The future of Iowa’s status as the only Midwestern state where gay couples can marry might be riding on next month’s special election for Senate District 18 in Linn County.
The seat came open when when Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, appointed former Sen. Swati Dandekar, a Marion Democrat, to the Iowa Utilities Board. The move means Republicans have a shot at sharing control of the state Senate, where Democrats last session used their narrow 26-24 majority to block a number of GOP efforts — most notably a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Iowa’s same-sex marriage law.
Branstad and the Republican-controlled House support beginning the multi-year process of referring a constitutional amendment to voters, and while a 25-to-25 split wouldn't ensure they would succeed in the next legislative session, their odds would be much better.
"This is a great opportunity to split the Senate and let a marriage amendment get debated on the Senate floor," said Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, a group that led the successful campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices because of their support for a 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
Republicans chose Cindy Golding, who owns several businesses with her husband that do consulting work, manage real estate and produce maple syrup and jellies, to replace Dandekar in the Senate. Democrats picked Liz Mathis, a former television news anchor who now works for a nonprofit child advocacy agency.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn said the Nov. 8 special election could be the most expensive legislative race in state history, with more than $1 million spent on the campaigns.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky agreed the seat was a priority.
"It's all-out and there's no question we will put in the resources we need to retain that seat," she said.
After the state Supreme Court's unanimous decision that a state law allowing marriage only between a man and woman violated the Iowa Constitution, more than 3,300 same-sex marriages had been held in the state as of Dec. 31, 2010. Updated figures will be released at the end of this year.
Iowa is one of six states that allow same-sex marriages, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C.
Branstad has denied that his selection of Dandekar last month was related to his desire to remove a Democratic roadblock to his agenda, which besides gay marriage includes extending abortion restrictions and reducing business taxes.
Although Dandekar wasn't among the 17 who applied for the $85,000-a-year job, Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor "recruited her for this position because of her immense knowledge and talent."
Dandekar has no experience specifically related to utility regulation but she and Branstad have noted she has a chemistry degree.
"I have a background in the sciences and this was an exciting opportunity," she said. "That is why I resigned and accepted a position on the utilities board."
Democrats have laughed off the governor's denials that he was using a government appointment to achieve his political goals.
"Of course he is. It would be silly to say otherwise," said Ron Parker, a top staffer for Senate Democrats.
The GOP has a narrow edge in the district, with 16,008 Republicans and 15,745 Democrats, but both parties are outnumbered by the 19,960 voters who registered without declaring a party preference.
Already, the seat has drawn national attention.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, spoke to about 50 people at Golding campaign headquarters last week, and White House hopeful Michele Bachmann has offered to campaign for her.
"Let's get this gal elected," Romney told cheering backers.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, also spoke of the race during a recent trip to Iowa, saying "We intend to see that Liz Mathis has all the resources she needs to be successful."
National gay and lesbians groups so far haven't announced plans to campaign for the Democrat, but Troy Price, executive director of the gay-rights organization One Iowa, said his colleagues were "doing everything we can to make sure people understand the issues."
Although Golding said she would support referring a gay marriage ban to voters and Mathis opposes such a move, neither candidate has made this issue a key part of her campaign.
Both said they would focus on the economy and jobs, reflecting Iowa's stubborn unemployment rate of about 6 percent. That's far below the 9.1 percent national rate but is the highest Iowa has seen in decades.
"I have not had a single person ask me about gay marriage," said Golding.
Mathis said her experience was similar, with voters expressing worries about boosting the economy and creating jobs.
"How do you help businesses grow and how do you train skilled workers and in what area do you train them?" said Mathis.
If Mathis is elected, Democrats will retain their majority and Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal likely will be able to keep his vow of not taking up the gay marriage issue, a stand he has repeatedly equated to "putting discrimination into the state's constitution."
A victory by Golding would make that promise tougher for Gronstal to meet, but he still might be able to hold out.
The 2004 election left the Iowa Senate tied, forcing the two parties to work out a power-sharing arrangement in which leaders of both parties had to agree before an issue was debated.
Secretary of the Senate Mike Marshall said it would be up to the senators to reach another deal if control was split again.
Gronstal has refused to discuss the possibility of sharing control of the chamber, and he's pushed back against assertions that the election would be about large, statewide issues."I think everyone is trying to turn this into higher political stakes and a referendum on this or that," Gronstal said. "In the end this is a race about two people and their connection to the community."