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Social Issues Front and Center in Elections in Mississippi, Iowa Tomorrow

In last week’s survey of Election Day 2011, I neglected to mention two very important races in Iowa and Mississippi, both of which turn on social issues.

In Iowa, there’s a special election for a state Senate seat that will determine which party controls that chamber of the legislature. Republican Governor Terry Branstad got a moderate Democrat to enter his Administration, causing the open seat. And there’s a lot at stake with the election between Republican Cindy Golding and Democrat Liz Mathis. Not least of which is the state’s marriage equality law:

The appointment has set off a fiercely fought, unusually expensive contest to secure Ms. Dandekar’s seat in a special election on Tuesday, an election that will determine whether the Democrats maintain a majority or whether the Republicans advance to tie. In that case, Republicans say they would be in a much stronger position to bring a backlog of bills already passed by the Assembly to a vote in the Senate […]

Though both candidates have insisted that the race will be decided on local issues, the statewide implications have consistently risen to the fore — staff members for both party leaders in the Senate have been out knocking on doors. Most discussed is the future of same-sex marriage in the state, an issue that has featured prominently in state elections since the unanimous 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court that overturned a state law limiting marriage to unions between a man and woman.

Groups opposed to same-sex marriage, including the National Organization for Marriage, are sending fliers for Ms. Golding, and supporters of same-sex marriage have been volunteering on behalf of Ms. Mathis.

“We see it as a great opportunity to break the handcuffs, to advance some pro-family issues, primarily the marriage vote,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, who led the successful effort last year to vote out three State Supreme Court justices because of the same-sex marriage ruling.

There would not be a snap election on marriage equality if Golding wins. Under Iowa law, the legislature must pass a constitutional amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then put it to a vote of the people. This means that a vote wouldn’t happen until 2014 at the earliest. But it won’t happen at all if Mathis wins and Democrats continue to set the agenda in the state Senate. According to polling, Mathis has a six-point lead, 52-46, though turnout in an obscure special election could be a factor. Marriage equality doesn’t appear to be a factor in voters’ decision-making, although it would be a major implication of the vote.

The other consequential election is the fetal personhood amendment in Mississippi. So far, “personhood” amendments like this have only gone before voters in Colorado, which voted it down twice. But Mississippi is a much more conservative state. However, because of the unclear implications of the bill – in addition to banning abortions by granting citizenship on the fetus, it could ban in vitro fertilization and even birth control – polling is extremely close.

It looks like the race to watch in Mississippi on Tuesday night will be the state’s proposed ‘Personhood Amendment,’ which would make the state’s laws regarding abortion and birth control the strictest of any state in the country. Right now it looks like it could go either way, with 45% of voters supporting the amendment and 44% opposed.

Men (48-42), whites (54-37), and Republicans (65-28) support the proposal. But women (42-46), African Americans (26-59), Democrats (23-61), and independents (35-51) oppose it. The good news for those opposed to the amendment is that 11% of voters are undecided and their demographics are 58% women, 54% Democratic, and 42% black- those still on the fence disproportionately belong to voter groups that oppose the amendment. That suggests when those folks make up their minds the proposal could be narrowly defeated.

Turnout will be an even bigger factor here. There is an African-American candidate at the top of the ticket for Governor, Johnny Dupree, which in theory could drive black turnout. However, Dupree is expected to lose, and in addition he has endorsed the personhood amendment even while proving he doesn’t understand the implications of it.

The personhood amendment is an aggressive tactic by anti-abortion forces, one that if it passes will almost certainly wind up before the Supreme Court. In fact it was created for that purpose. Mississippians have the opportunity to stop that from happening tomorrow.

UPDATE: Desperately afraid of their base, most Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, have endorsed the personhood amendment in Mississippi. Only Jon Huntsman has come out against it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen