There is very little doubt regarding the political leanings of a majority in the State of Illinois. It's a solid blue state with an overwhelming number of voters identifying themselves as strong or lean Democrat which is ever growing even beyond the stronghold of Chicago. Yet, even with this statistical advantage, the state elected Republican politicians like U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, Treasurer Dan Rutherford, and Comptroller Judy Bar Topinka from a statewide ballot. One thing all of these candidates have in common: They present themselves as moderates in their party.
Which is where the marriage equality issue comes intricately into play in Illinois. No issue has moved as quickly as support for equal protection for gay couples to marry, across all spectrums of the political landscape. None.
A recent Gallup poll has gay marriage support in the U.S. around 53 percent up from 27 percent support in just 1996. In Illinois, a recent poll, from the Paul Simon Institute, showed comparable results in that a majority of Illinois residents now support gay marriage, a sharp increase from a similar poll taken just three years prior.
Illinois is obviously not alone. Minnesota recently joined eleven other states making gay marriage legal and polls announced in the last week put Arizona, Virginia, and even Michigan as states with a new majority support. Michigan is even more surprising in that in just 2004, they passed a ban on gay marriage and according to a recent Glen Gariff Inc. poll 54 percent approve of a repeal.
With a looming vote here in the Illinois House, SB10 is going to force conservative legislators in the state to choose to support this societal shift toward equal marriage or else risk being labeled extreme and out of touch in future statewide races. One only has to look to the most recent gubernatorial race to see how the politics of association and fear work in non-presidential elections in Illinois.
I still contend that had the Illinois GOP not barely selected the heavily conservative leaning Senator Bill Brady, Illinois's Governor Mansion would be currently under GOP control. Select Brady they did, and the flailing Pat Quinn campaign (with a huge assist from Personal PAC) was able to define the downstate senator as the extreme anti-women conservative and by the slimmest of margins Governor Quinn won his first full term in office. They achieved this using an issue that had very little movement and had well established biases. Equal marriage doesn't have that inherent risk of motivating your opposition anymore, the needle for support is swiftly moving toward equality or at minimum an indifference toward the issue. The younger electorate see it as their battle for fairness, the older are more and more coming along.
Democrats in the state will be looking to replicate that effort with whichever candidate emerges from what is bound to be a rough GOP primary. With growing support even among their own conservative party, there will be no greater issue to define an opponent (and in doing so feed into the "GOP is out of touch" narrative) than equal marriage.
Trapped between a Tea Party electorate energized by former Illinois GOP congressman Joe Walsh and the apparent purging that was Senator Oberweis's crusade against (gay marriage supporting) former Illinois GOP Chair Pat Brady and you get very little room to maneuver. As gay marriage support numbers continue to accelerate, being able to support equal marriage and win a conservative primary is going to be the challenge a few ambitious representatives are going to have to take. It is also quite possible the Illinois GOP could have a serious contender who happens to be gay make a run at the 2014 Governor's chair, a situation that will make the upcoming vote and the rhetoric that comes with it even more intriguing.
It won't just be at the top of the ticket either, everything from Attorney General to Comptroller could be competitive and a legislator's equality stance could be the deciding factor to whether or not the suburban voter and the moderate Chicago voter can trust and relate to the candidate and ultimately "pull the lever."
Think it is just a conservative problem? Think again. Downstate Democrats are already looked upon within an aura of distrust statewide and minority candidates (looking to appeal to multi-cultural populations) who oppose equal marriage are going to find attracting any semblance of votes outside their community even more challenging than it already is.
It is with a sense of irony that I read that the voice of several recent anti-gay marriage robocalls to constituents of black caucus members was that of former State Senator Reverend Meeks. The former champion of voucher school education and poverty assistance in Chicago saw his efforts to become Chicago's second black mayor come to a screeching halt when it was reported that in 2006 he called homosexuality "an evil sickness." I constantly remind politicians what enthralls at the alter scares on the northern lakefront (and for that matter the suburbs).
With a vote upcoming any day now in Springfield and a Supreme Court decision that is likely to be less than an all-out victory for equal marriage, the issue won't be going away as some have hoped. For those in religiously organized districts and/or conservative districts the issue probably hasn't evolved fast enough to make the decision easy. Even if a legislator can't come to understand the fairness aspect of the issue, they must understand the political ramifications for not voting affirmatively will likely end or at least make incredibly unlikely future political advancement in Illinois.
Of course members without forward ambitions should be relatively safe in deep red or religiously organized districts in the state, but very few elected officials will tell you they aren't looking forward, and those that do are mostly lying.