Gov. Scott Walker has a history of forcefully opposing same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, but in the wake of the state’s ban on gay marriages being found unconstitutional, the Republican leader said Thursday that his own views about the issue do not matter.
Walker, who is running for re-election this year and eyeing a bid for president in 2016, continued to largely duck questions about the state’s ban he voted for in 2006, as hundreds of gay couples wed in the last week and polls show public attitudes shifting in favor of allowing same-sex marriages.
“The last thing Walker wants to do is get into a debate about same-sex marriage,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Why? Because he’ll lose.”
Walker campaigned nine years ago strongly in support of the ban.
“We must change the Wisconsin state constitution to say that marriage is to be between one man and one woman,” Walker said in November 2005 during a brief run for governor that year. “My belief in this position is even stronger today.”
Walker joined with 59 percent of voters statewide to add the ban to the state constitution in 2006. Even though he pushed for it to be approved then, Walker now says his position is irrelevant.
“My position has been clear. I voted in the past. It really doesn’t matter,” Walker said in response to questions about the issue following a campaign event Thursday.
He also previously voted as a member of the state Assembly for a bill in 1997 to prohibit same-sex marriages and declare those conducted in other states to be invalid.
As Milwaukee County executive in 2009, Walker vetoed a measure to provide benefits to same-sex partners of county workers. And once elected governor, in 2011, he fired the state’s attorney defending Wisconsin’s domestic registry law. The state Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the registry violates the state ban on gay marriage.
But in May, Walker said he doesn’t think it will be an issue in this year’s governor’s race.
“Voters don’t talk to me about that,” Walker said then, sidestepping questions about whether he still personally supported the ban. “They talk to me about the economy; they talk to me about their kids’ schools; they talk to me about making sure we keep our finances in order.”
Walker’s reluctance to stick to his hard-line position may be explained by recent polls showing growing public support for same-sex marriages.
A Marquette University law school poll released in May found that 55 percent of registered Wisconsin voters favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. That was up from 44 percent in October 2012.
Every demographic group in the May survey clearly favored marriage equality, except for three key Walker constituencies — Republicans, conservatives and frequent church-goers, said poll director Charles Franklin.
In the last five to 10 years, the overall shift in favor of gay marriage prompted many Democrats — including President Barack Obama — and a few Republicans to drop their opposition to same-sex unions, Franklin said.
But for Walker to do that would risk cooling the enthusiasm of core supporters he needs to knock on doors, raise money and vote for him, Franklin said. At the same time, to speak out loudly against marriage rights could stir up the growing majority that support those rights.
“One strategy is to not say anything,” Franklin said.
Walker’s likely Democratic opponent in this year’s race for governor, Mary Burke, supports legalizing same-sex marriage and said she voted against the 2006 constitutional ban.
“Finally recognizing that committed, loving Wisconsin couples have the freedom to marry whomever they choose represents an important step forward for our state,” Burke said in a statement Thursday. “From strengthening our communities to making our state more competitive economically — marriage equality makes Wisconsin stronger.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the ban in February on behalf of eight same-sex couples. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb last week struck down the ban as unconstitutional, but did not give direction to state officials about what to do.
Sixty of Wisconsin’s 72 county clerks were issuing licenses to same-sex couples as of midday Thursday, but couples had applied in only 42 of those counties for at least 637 licenses. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Thursday that those clerks risk being criminally charged by local district attorneys if they believe they are breaking the law by doing so. Van Hollen continues to ask both Crabb and a federal appeals court to put the ruling striking down the ban on hold while he appeals the case, a move that would force clerks to stop issuing licenses.
Both Republican and Democratic clerks, in both Republican- and Democratic-voting counties, are issuing the licenses.
State Journal reporters Steven Verburg and Nick Heynen and Associated Press reporter Carrie Antlfinger contributed to this report.