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Granite State values

New Hampshire, a political barometer on gay marriage

Late yesterday, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage. This development didn't get big play online or in print, mainly because we've already reached the point where it's no longer deemed big news when a new state stands up for equal rights.

New Hampshire became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, but we should at least pause to note the significance of this news. New Hampshire is a former Republican bastion - or, as we used to say a generation ago, "a rock-ribbed" Republican bastion - that has now become a swing state dominated by its burgeoning population of independent voters. Increasingly, New Hampshire's elected leaders act in ways that mirror the mood of those independent voters.

The legislative compromise that produced the gay marriage bill, signed into law yesterday afternoon by the centrist Democratic governor, is a barometer of mainstream independent opinion - and fresh evidence that legal and cultural barriers to gay marriage will continue to fall, state by state, with each passing year.

New Hampshire epitomizes these changes. Barely ten years ago, the Republicans held both U.S. House seats, both U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, and both state legislative chambers. Nothing unusual about that; the GOP-leaning politics of the Granite State had long been carved in granite. In fact, it wasn't so long ago that the New Hampshire media was dominated by one man, archconservative newspaper publisher William Loeb, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, who routinely used his Manchester Union Leader as a weapon to bludgeon Democrats. Richard Nixon's dirty tricksters used to pump their sewage directly into Loeb's paper; at one point, they concocted a fake document (dutifully printed by Loeb) that seriously damaged front-runner Ed Muskie's 1972 presidential campaign.

Today, by contrast, New Hampshire's Republicans control absolutely nothing, with the sole exception of Judd Gregg's lame duck U.S. Senate seat. The big switch has occurred not because the voters have suddenly become Democrats en masse, but because independents (by far the largest group in the state electorate) have opted to vote for Democratic candidates. And the ranks of those independents have swelled mightily during the past 10 years, thanks to a massive influx of high-tech and financial-services workers (transplanted from neighboring states), and thanks to a large in-migration of retirees who have brought their independent politics with them.

And there's another factor, which very much plays into the gay marriage development: Many of New Hampshire's traditional Republicans have libertarian instincts, which means they believe in the traditional conservative credo that government should leave people alone. (After all, the state motto is "Live Free or Die.") On that issue alone, they have grown increasingly alienated from the national GOP, which is increasingly dominated by socially conservative southerners and evangelicals who want government to police the bedroom.

This helps to explain why, in the state legislature, many of the swing votes for gay marriage were cast by Republican lawmakers. As one of them, State Rep. Anthony DiFruscia, remarked yesterday during floor debate, "If you have no choice as to your sex, male or female; if you have no choice as to your color; if you have no choice as to your sexual orientation; then you have to be protected and given the same opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness."

Actually, that's not much different than what conservative attorney Ted Olson said the other day. Olson served President Bush as U.S. Solictor General, and prior to that he was most famous for arguing candidate Bush's case during the 2000 post-election Florida ballot imbroglio. Today, however, he has teamed up with his 2000 legal adversary, David Boies, to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of gays seeking to marry. Olson told Larry King, "This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue. It's not a liberal or a conservative issue. The right of individuals committed to one another to live in a stable, committed, loving relationship is something that we should all respect and be for."

Ultimately, the vote yesterday in New Hamsphire is yet another wake-up call to the national GOP. The party can no longer afford to target gay marriage as a wedge issue, because gay marriage is inexorably becoming mainstream. It can no longer get mileage by denouncing "San Francisco values," because, even as innuendo, that old pejorative is not accurate anymore. No, if the GOP really wants to stick with that kind of rhetoric, it would have to denounce "New Hampshire Iowa Massachusetts Connecticut Vermont Maine values."

Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?


Meanwhile, yesterday, Sonia Sotomayor's critics tried to trumpet a new Gallup poll which reports that "only" 54 percent of the American people support her nomination to the high court. This number was ballyhooed in some conservative quarters as proof that she's going down. Or something. It's hard to tell whether these critics opted to consciously ignore the fine print, or whether they're willfully ignorant.

Either way, they omitted something basic:

There have been seven court nominees since 1987. Gallup has measured the early support for all seven. And lo and behold, Sotomayor's 54 percent is higher than the early support for any other nominee - with the sole exception of John Roberts in 2005.

Moreover, only 24 percent of Americans oppose her nomination - another Gallup stat that many of her critics chose to ignore.

And even though, in a separate Quinnipiac poll, 71 percent of Americans disagree with Sotomayor's federal appeals ruling against those white New Haven firefighters (another poll ballyhooed by conservatives yesterday), the fine print omitted by her critics tells us something arguably more important:

Nearly six in 10 Americans (59 percent) said that Sotomayor's stance in that case doesn't make them more or less likely to support her, and another seven percent said her stance makes them more likely to support her. And this morning, the Qunnipiac poll reported overall support numbers that are virtually identical to the Gallup numbers: 55 percent of Americans saying yes to her nomination, and 25 percent saying no.

All of which helps explain why the Senate Republicans are basically stuck with only one battle cry: "Delay the hearings until September."

Doesn't quite have the ring of victory, does it?