DES MOINES — Same-sex marriage might be here to stay in Iowa.
Iowa voters decided Tuesday to retain a state Supreme Court justice who participated in the landmark 2009 ruling that made Iowa the first Midwestern state to allow gay marriage, trumping a conservative campaign to oust him. And they rejected the Republican Party’s bid to take control of the Iowa Senate, where conservatives hoped to pass a constitutional amendment asking voters to limit marriage rights to unions between one man and one woman.
Instead, Iowans re-elected Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal of Council Bluffs, who has blocked debate of that amendment for three years. He has repeatedly said he would not allow debate on a measure that would enshrine discrimination in the Iowa Constitution, a stand that put his 30-year career on the line.
Republicans and social conservatives targeted Gronstal in the hopes of removing that roadblock on Tuesday, but Gronstal easily won re-election with 55 percent of the vote. And Gronstal announced early Wednesday that he believed Democrats would keep their slim majority in the Iowa Senate, picking up the 26 seats they need to continue running the chamber.
All told, Tuesday fortified Iowa’s status as one of the earliest states to adopt gay marriage — one where the right to wed for gays and lesbians is not likely to end soon.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we have turned a corner on this issue,” said Molly Tafoya, spokeswoman for One Iowa, the state’s leading gay rights group. She said opponents of gay marriage would be unlikely to block the practice in the near future — but stopped short of declaring it safe.
“Our opponents are well-funded, likely very, very mad today and I imagine that they are going to dust themselves off and take a look at where they can try to influence this issue,” she said.
Greg Baker, political director for the Family Leader, a group that led unsuccessful campaigns to remove Justice David Wiggins and elect a Republican Senate majority, conceded that attempts to ban gay marriage were likely dead for the next two years. A constitutional amendment takes passage in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then approval from voters in a statewide referendum.
Baker said critics of gay marriage would spend the next year regrouping, energizing the opposition through churches and trying to bring younger voters to their cause. The best prospect at this point, he said, would be for the GOP to take control of the Iowa Legislature in the midterm 2014 elections.
“We most certainly have an uphill battle in front of us, but I don’t think the marriage issue is done in Iowa yet,” he said.
A handful of Republican Senate candidates who were opposed to gay marriage and received backing from the Family Leader lost their races. They included Sen. Merlin Bartz of Grafton and Matt Reisetter of Cedar Falls, whose Democratic rivals received backing from gay rights groups and donors.
While votes in the Senate will have a practical impact, the vote on Justice Wiggins was the clearest symbol of the state’s changing attitude toward gay rights. He was one of seven justices who joined the unanimous 2009 ruling that found Iowa’s ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution’s equal-protection clause, ordering county clerks to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
After a backlash, Iowa voters in 2010 removed three of Wiggins’ colleagues from the bench when they stood for retention, an unprecedented repudiation. But on Tuesday, more than 54 percent of voters decided Wiggins should keep his job — about 10 percentage points higher approval than his colleagues in 2010.
“I want to thank the people of Iowa who preserved the fairness and impartiality of Iowa’s courts and agree that equal means equal,” Wiggins said Wednesday.
Wiggins racked up huge margins of victory in the counties with Iowa’s three public universities, including Johnson County, where he won more than 70 percent of the vote, Story County and Black Hawk County. Two large eastern Iowa counties that are filled with swing voters — Linn and Scott — also heavily favored Wiggins’ retention.
Some Republicans who identified their top concern as fiscal issues said after voting Tuesday that they accepted gay marriage, as did many younger Republicans.
“I am pro-gay marriage,” said Hannah Risinger, a 19-year-old Drake University student, after she voted for Mitt Romney and Wiggins. “I know that it’s legal here in Iowa and I’m hoping that will spread.”
University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle said he believed gay marriage would be safe for the foreseeable future. Since the ruling, more than 4,500 gay and lesbian couples have wed in Iowa.
“People are getting used to it,” he said. “It has basically become the new normal.”