A major social issue dominated the state last year, when national and even international attention centered on the fate of Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

The often contentious campaign that led to the law’s repeal spread throughout the state, driving up media coverage and influencing elections.

Maine politics are equally energized this year, this time with a gubernatorial race. And while the question of gay marriage does come up on the campaign trail, most candidates and political observers agree that it and other social issues are secondary to economic concerns.

“To me, the issues are much more blatantly about jobs and economic issues,” said  Michael Franz,  assistant professor of political science at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Some social issues are well beyond the purview of the governor – abortion rights vs. abortion restrictions, for example, is a federal matter. But some voters still use the issue as a litmus test, a part of the decision-making process that leads them to check off one name over another in the voting booth.

Other issues, such as same-sex marriage, are firmly in the state’s sphere and could face a future governor.

Overall, candidates said that when they do hear questions about social issues, they tend to be about same-sex marriage, abortion rights, casinos in Maine and gun rights. 

“I think social issues, especially providing full equality to all Mainers, is something voters care about,” said Jesse Connolly, who ran the campaign supporting same-sex marriage last year.

“But I also think voters look at the whole package, want to understand how their economic views, their views around the role of government, fit in as well as their stances on issues like marriage equality and abortion (rights). It’s part of the whole package.”

Connolly has donated money to three Democratic candidates: Elizabeth Mitchell, Steven Rowe and Patrick McGowan.

Connolly also ran Gov. John Baldacci’s re-election campaign in 2006. In that campaign, social issues weren’t a big factor in the primaries, Connolly said, but they did play a role in the general election.

Baldacci’s Republican challenger, Chandler Woodcock, was socially conservative. The Maine Democratic Party ran ads highlighting the differences between the two candidates on social issues.

Baldacci won, but social conservatives saw Woodcock’s success in the primary, and the challenge he posed in the general election, as a sign of their growing influence, said the Rev. Bob Emrich, one of the leaders of last year’s campaign against same-sex marriage and a candidate for the House in Newport.

“Some people who still think they can ignore that group of people – that’s going to be unfortunate for them,” said Emrich, who introduced Republican candidate Bill Beardsley at the Republican State Convention several weeks ago.

Emrich said social issues remain important to many voters.

“Candidates tend to be afraid of them; you can’t really be on both sides,” he said. “They’re afraid that by taking a position, they’re alienating the people on the other side. Consequently, that’s why you don’t hear a lot (from the campaigns).”

Various organizations around the state are interested in where candidates stand on social issues. Many have asked them to provide detailed answers on questionnaires and have become adept at pinning down the candidates on the issues. The candidates, recognizing that they need to cast a wide net in a broad primary, often can’t afford to ignore the questionnaires.

It’s hard to track social conservatives, Emrich said, because they’re not necessarily clustered at one club, one church, in one community. But, he said, they represent enough of a bloc that he thought they could sway the primary.

“If any candidate communicates well and effectively connects with social conservatives, (they) will win the primary,” Emrich said.

Broadly speaking, the four Democrats running for governor all support same-sex marriage and are pro-abortion rights. They have different opinions on gun ownership rights.

Of the seven Republicans in the race, there are varying stances on abortion rights and same-sex marriage. All GOP candidates support gun rights and don’t see a need for further laws in that regard.

STEVE ABBOTT-R
Backs legal recognition for gay couples, abortion rights

Abbott, a Portland Republican, said he’s heard very few questions about social issues on the campaign trail. The one that comes up the most is same-sex marriage. Abbott said he supported traditional marriage but recognized that something more needed to be done for gay and lesbian couples.

“There are many same-sex couples in the state, and they have legal issues that we need to recognize involving property, personal issues,” said Abbott. “It would make sense for the state to give those couples legal recognition that would include the same rights and responsibilities that traditional married couples have.”

He said he was personally in favor of abortion rights, calling it a “personal and religious decision” and one in which government shouldn’t be involved. He supports Maine’s current gun laws.

On the casino issue, he said he was not a proponent of them and wouldn’t actively recruit development of casinos in Maine. However, he said, if a community voted to host a casino, he wouldn’t block its opportunity.

BILL BEARDSLEY-R
Opposes civil unions, casinos, abortion, the death penalty

Beardsley is the one candidate who said he’s hearing a lot about social issues while campaigning. The Ellsworth Republican is a social conservative and believes that people with similar views feel they can talk to him. Social conservatives tend to hold their beliefs privately, he said.

Beardsley, who has an adopted son, said he believes in the sanctity of life. He doesn’t believe in the death penalty and opposes abortion.

He supports traditional marriage and is opposed to civil unions, calling them a confusing concept. He said he supports the traditional laws that exist and the domestic partner laws on the books, adding that they could be tweaked if needed.

Beardsley said he supports both hunting and the Second Amendment. Personally, he’s not a casino supporter, he said.

“I don’t day trade, I don’t buy lottery tickets at Rotary,” he said. “I worry about young people, feeling you get something for nothing.”

If the Legislature passed a casino bill, he would consider vetoing it, he said. If it went to referendum and were supported by voters, he would administer the law, Beardsley said.

MATT JACOBSON-R
Favors gun rights, opposes abortion, gay marriage

Jacobson, a Cumberland Republican, noted that although social issues aren’t top-of-mind for many people, those who do care about them “care about them deeply.”

Jacobson, who adopted two children with his wife, said he is Catholic and anti-abortion. On same-sex marriage, he said the state needs to keep the word “marriage” out of any solutions but needs to change the current legal environment.

“We have a legal problem. We have people among us who wander around with power of attorney in their back pocket because they’re afraid,” Jacobson said. “We ought to fix that problem. It seems to me we don’t have to call it marriage.”

He said he is a supporter of the Second Amendment. Jacobson said casinos weren’t his first choice for economic development, but that if a community were to vote to host one, the state shouldn’t block it.

PAUL LePAGE-R
Personally opposes casinos, favors traditional marriage

LePage said he hears very little about social issues. But, he said, the one that comes up most is the question of casinos in Maine.
“My personal view as a citizen is I’d vote against them. As governor, I’d have to say constitutionally, I don’t see how you’d prevent them,” the Waterville Republican said. “The biggest gamble I take is I get up in the morning.”

LePage said if a casino were approved for Maine, he’d seek to ensure that the state benefits from the operation.

On gay marriage, LePage said he supports traditional marriage and isn’t in favor of giving “anything special to any class of people.” He said he would abide by the state’s civil rights laws.

LePage said he is anti-abortion and supports the Second Amendment.

PATRICK McGOWAN-D
Backs pregnancy prevention, firearm safety education

McGowan, a Hallowell Democrat, said he supports same-sex marriage and would support another referendum vote on the issue.
McGowan said he is pro-abortion rights but also a strong supporter of prevention of teen pregnancies.

“We can’t just talk about abstinence; there has to be education to prevent (unwanted pregnancies),” said McGowan, who has three daughters.

He hasn’t favored casinos in Washington or Oxford counties and wouldn’t “unless they show me a model where the money stays in Maine.”

On gun rights, McGowan said he’s a supporter but felt the state could do more to promote gun safety in the form of trigger locks and gun safes.

PETER MILLS-R
Questions need for casinos, wouldn’t alter gun statutes

Mills, a Cornville Republican, said there is a “distinct minority” of Republicans who are single-issue voters. Mills, who is a moderate Republican, said he answers them candidly.

“I’m pro-choice, I voted for the gay marriage bill – next question,” said Mills. “Sometimes there isn’t a next.”

Mills said he didn’t think casinos were useful, and he said he’s always voted against them in the Legislature. He said he would “suffer a public referendum” on whether to allow a casino, but he added that he would lobby against it.

On gun ownership, Mills said he wouldn’t propose any modification to Maine’s current laws. Mills said he supported legislation that allowed concealed weapons in Acadia National Park, passed after the federal government did away with a 30-year ban on firearms in national parks.

ELIZABETH MITCHELL-D
Favors tribal casinos, opposes fall Oxford County referendum

Mitchell said various social issues come up in debates or candidate forums but not as much on the street, talking to voters.

She’s supported gay marriage as a state senator and would continue to do so, she said, though it rarely comes up on the campaign trail.

“Those people who were in the front lines of fighting for the civil liberties of equality and marriage are still grieving over the loss at the polls, trying to think about what’s next, not giving up, but how to move forward,” said Mitchell, a Vassalboro Democrat.

Mitchell voted for casinos when Maine Indian tribes had proposals for York and Washington counties, and she believes “the tribes in Maine should have that economic self-determination.”

She didn’t support the current proposal for Oxford County, she said, because it blocked competition from other casinos going forward.

Mitchell said she’s pro-abortion rights but didn’t see that question raised often. On gun rights, Mitchell said she supported a bill that would have prohibited firearms in Acadia National Park after the federal government reversed a 30-year ban. She opposed changes that allowed concealed weapons in the park, but that bill passed.

LES OTTEN-R
Supports extending rights of marriage to gay couples

Otten said he has seen four main social issues come up: abortion rights, gay marriage, the death penalty and gun rights.

“They become a litmus test – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – as to ‘am I going to be tolerant of this person,’” said Otten.

He said he’s against late-term abortions but supported a woman’s right to choose. He was governed, he said, by the Supreme Court.
On gay marriage, he said he was a supporter of traditional marriage but also believed in civil unions.

Otten said he would have vetoed the gay marriage bill that Gov. John Baldacci signed. He said he would have supported something closer to the bill Washington state passed, which essentially extended the same rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples without calling their relationship marriage.

The Greenwood Republican supports the Second Amendment and the death penalty.

BRUCE POLIQUIN-R
Opposes abortion, sees no reason for more gun laws

Poliquin, a Georgetown Republican, said he is a “strong believer in traditional marriage” and is also anti-abortion.

“These are issues of conscience; for some people, issues of religion,” said Poliquin. “Neither of those issues should be political footballs, decided on by the governor or a small group of legislators.”

The other social issue he said he’s heard on the campaign trail has been gun rights. He said he doesn’t think the state needs more gun laws, and he supports the laws on the books.

STEVEN ROWE-D
Backs gun-show background checks, opposed to casinos

With respect to gun laws, the Portland Democrat said he advocates closing the “gun show loophole.”

Essentially, licensed firearm dealers have to do background checks on someone who buys a gun from them, but no such checks go on at gun shows. Rowe said such checks should be mandated.

He said he would support looking for a way to address the “Uncle Henry’s issue,” where firearms sold through classified ad magazines wind up in the hands of criminals.

On the issue of gambling, Rowe said he didn’t see the businesses as good economic investments.

“They might look like an appealing solution, but they generally cost more in the long run,” he said. “There are better ways to improve our economy.”

Rowe said he would abide by voters’ decision if they were to approve a casino.

Rowe is both pro-abortion rights and supportive of same-sex marriage.

He said he was concerned about young, low-income families that may not have a lot of stability. He said he would support early child care and education for children and mentoring programs for young parents.

ROSA SCARCELLI-D
Would veto casino bill; backs gun-buy background checks 

Scarcelli said she was rarely asked about social issues, and that economic concerns were the most popular topics.
She said she supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.   “I was raised in a community where loving, compassionate relationships were not just heterosexual,” said Scarcelli.

She’s had conversations with voters who hold different opinions, and she said it was “much more about letting people express their beliefs and listening.”

On casinos, the Portland Democrat said the question for her is not about gambling, but about whether they are sustainable long-term businesses.

She also thinks casinos in Maine could taint the state’s brand and said she’d veto any casino bill that came through the Legislature. If the voters approved a casino, she would abide by their will, she said.

On gun rights, she said she supports mandatory background checks for all firearm purchases.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]