NASHVILLE, Ind. – The headlines following the primary election upsets of State Reps. Rebecca Kubacki and Kathy Heuer were along the lines of “social conservatives strike back.”
The two northern Indiana Republicans voted to strike the second sentence of HJR-3 and then voted against the amendment itself. While it passed the House and Senate with large but diminished margins, the process was forced to restart and is now potentially up for the ballot in 2016.
The social conservative rebound wasn’t complete, as State Sen. John Waterman lost, State Rep. Casey Cox survived, and State Rep. Bob Morris had a very close call.
But one thing is certain: The family coalitions will be active recruiting candidates for the 2016 cycles and will press Gov. Mike Pence to back the amendment for the year when he could seek re-election. Pence administration sources have indicated to me that they view support for the marriage amendment to be eroding, and that the emphasis on 2015 will be on the biennial budget.
Megan Robertson, the Republican who headed the Freedom Indiana advocacy group that fought the marriage amendment, made it clear that if the marriage amendment resurfaces, the organization will be “ready to fight again.”
The challenge for the family coalition is to counter the erosion of support in polls as well as to successfully target legislative incumbents beyond Elkhart, Kosciusko and Whitley counties. Kubacki and Heuer were two moderate Republicans representing some of the most socially conservatives areas in the state.
Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute put several Republicans, State Reps. Kevin Mahan, Steve Braun and perhaps even Senate President David Long, on notice that primary or general election challengers may be in the offing.
“The vote occurred so late we didn’t have time to recruit,” Smith said Wednesday morning. The House vote occurred close to the February filing deadline. Smith had grumbled to reporters after the House excised the second sentence to HJR-3 that a number of Republicans had not kept their word. He enunciated that as the primary campaign fumes were clearing.
“We won’t make that mistake again,” Smith vowed. “We’ll spend more time recruiting.”
Smith described Mahan of Hartford City and Braun of Zionsville as Republicans who “abandoned” the marriage cause. As for President Long, who at one point gaveled Smith as “out of order” during Senate testimony last February, Smith was asked if a primary challenge might be in the offing. “I think Sen. Long thinks the Supreme Court will have the final word before it gets on the ballot,” he said. "We’d rather have the vote in the Senate. If the political process isn’t responsive, we know what we have to do.”
But the other part of this reality is that Republicans like Mahan — 23 in total in the House — have seen a change in their small town and rural districts. There is more of a “live-and-let-live” mentality. Gays in small towns a generation ago tended to be inconspicuous. State Rep. Tom Saunders of tiny Lewisville observed his lesbian neighbors flying an equality banner on their porch. When he sought guidance from his pastor, the message was “love thy neighbor.”
Republicans from places like Hartford City, Huntington, Attica and Mount Vernon voted to strike the second sentence.
In the wake of the removal of the second sentence and the passage of the filing deadline, Smith and Ryan McCann of the Indiana Family Institute decided to pick a “handful of races” to exact retribution. “Kubacki was chair of the Family Committee,” Smith explained, “so we thought we’d send a message. Curt Nisly is very libertarian, but we thought he’d be a solid vote on family and life issues. Heuer had voted against the amendment and had a good challenger. Ryan really liked Christopher Judy.”
Jeff Brantley of the Indiana Chamber said they realized Kubacki was in trouble last February. “That area is so evangelical,” he said. “The HJR-3 votes were just killers.”
The family coalition decided to spend $11,700 on a radio ad on WOWO in Fort Wayne, targeting Kubacki, Heuer and Cox. The ad ran 11 times a day for 15 days. “We thought we could reach the conservative, high-information primary voter,” Smith said.
Brantley said that the WOWO ad was devastating for Heuer. “People started to remember how she voted on HJR-3 and her numbers just collapsed.”
As for Pence, whom sources say endorsed Kubacki and Cox but not Heuer, Smith said he has not circled back with the governor. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann donated $1,000 to Kubacki’s campaign in the final days. Pence endorsed restoring the second sentence in early February at a family coalition luncheon.
“I don’t know what Gov. Pence’s thinking was there,” Smith said of his endorsements. “Maybe he felt an obligation to be loyal.”
Smith described some elements of the Pence administration as being “skeptical” and added, “Mike has never indicated to me he wants to back down.”
If Pence decides to run for reelection — and that’s still a better bet than a presidential bid — the marriage issue will be a complicating one, particularly for a governor who won office with only 49 percent of the vote in 2012.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.