Two New England governors are facing a choice between their principles and their party as same-sex-marriage bills move nearer to landing on their desks.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and Maine Gov. John Baldacci had staked out clear positions against gay marriage before this year’s legislative sessions. Then bills to extend marriage to same-sex couples began moving faster than expected through the Maine and New Hampshire legislatures.
The bills’ supporters and detractors have been divided largely along party lines, with Democratic legislators overwhelmingly in favor. The problem for Mr. Baldacci and Mr. Lynch is that they are Democrats, and New England Democrats who oppose gay marriage are increasingly rare.
“If you read the blogs, it’s almost like it’s become a litmus test for Democrats here, like abortion,” said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research-Action in Manchester, N.H., which opposes same-sex marriage.
Janson Wu, staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, disagreed. “I think this is a shift in the population in general, not just party lines,” he said.
Mr. Lynch likely will confront the issue first. Both houses of the New Hampshire legislature have passed same-sex-marriage legislation, although lawmakers still must reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions before sending a bill to the governor.
“He’s kind of in a box now because, on a number of occasions, he’s said he doesn’t support same-sex marriage and that he thinks marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman,” said Mr. Smith. “So now, is he going to go with what he said he would do, or what the party wants him to do?”
Democrats who oppose same-sex marriage find themselves under intense pressure to reconsider their stance.
State Sen. Deborah Reynolds, a Democrat who voted last month with Republicans against the New Hampshire bill in committee, said she didn’t think voters were ready for gay marriage.
A week later, she changed her mind and voted in favor of the bill on the Senate floor. The legislation passed Wednesday by a slim 13-11 margin amid rumors that Democrats were prepared to present a primary challenger to Ms. Reynolds unless she switched her vote.
“She got a pounding from Democrats in the state because of that [committee vote],” said New Hampshire political analyst Dean Spiliotes.
Mr. Lynch issued a statement last week reiterating his position on the issue but stopping short of saying he would veto the bill.
“I still believe the fundamental issue about providing the same rights and protections to same-sex couples as are available to heterosexual couples,” said Mr. Lynch. “This was accomplished through the passage of the civil-unions law two years ago.”
Mr. Lynch is expected to seek re-election next year, but even if he does veto the bill, analysts say, it’s unlikely he will face retribution from either his party or advocates of gay marriage. The governor holds a 70 percent approval rating and a personal fortune that makes him less dependent on special-interest funding.
“He’s been so effective, so popular that I think he could withstand a backlash from the left,” said Mr. Spiliotes. “If he vetoes this, there are going to be some people who are upset, but I don’t think that would stop him from winning another term.”
In Maine, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 21-14 and now goes to the House, where a vote is expected Tuesday. Most observers agree that House passage is likely.
“We’re very hopeful for the House vote,” said Mr. Wu. “We certainly have the momentum after that amazing Senate vote.”
Like Mr. Lynch, Mr. Baldacci had opposed gay marriage in favor of civil unions, but he issued a statement when legislation was introduced in January saying that he would keep an open mind during the debate.
“I’m not prepared to say I support gay marriage today, but I will consider what I hear as the Legislature works to find the best way to address discrimination,” Mr. Baldacci said.
Mr. Baldacci doesn’t face the pressure of a 2010 campaign because of term limits. Opponents of same-sex marriage are preparing for the worst, announcing last week that if he does sign the bill, they will attempt to block it with a veto referendum, known as a “people’s veto.”
Placing such a measure on the ballot is relatively easy in Maine, requiring about 55,000 signatures, and the effort is often successful. A veto referendum to overturn a tax on soft drinks passed in November.