The One Election Where Gay Marriage Is Still a Political Liability for Democrats

Republicans could use the issue to paint Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for governor in Kentucky, as too liberal for the state.

Gay marriage has quickly become mainstream and is now legal in 37 states. But a decade after Republicans sought to use the issue as a wedge against Democrats across the whole country, same-sex marriage can still give Democrats trouble in the states where it remains illegal.

That's the case in Kentucky, where Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general, is running to maintain his party's grip on the governorship this fall. Last year, Conway took a big political risk when he declined to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban in court. And this year, the Supreme Court could strike down Kentucky's law in the midst of his campaign.

Polling has shown a majority of Kentuckians oppose same-sex marriage. But during a tearful press conference last March, Conway told a crowd that he would not defend the state's ban. "I came to the inescapable conclusion that if I did so, I would be defending discrimination," Conway said. "That I will not do. As attorney general of Kentucky, I must draw the line when it comes to discrimination. For those who disagree, I can only say that I am doing what I think is right."

The state's popular Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, is still publicly defending the law. When Conway declined to defend the ban, Beshear hired outside counsel to do so in his stead. Conway has personally acknowledged that the decision carried political risks.

"It's a ready-made attack ad," said Al Cross, the director of the University of Kentucky's Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "We have a socially conservative electorate, most of whom still don't like the idea of a same-sex marriage. This issue in the minds of socially conservative voters confirms that Jack Conway is a liberal, much like Barack Obama."

That's a huge threat in Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell linked once-popular Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to Obama and national Democrats for months last year before ultimately thrashing her in their Senate race. One of Conway's advantages heading into the 2015 gubernatorial campaign was that it would be harder for Republicans to make that national link in a race for state office. The "Kentucky Democrat" is still a strong brand inside the state's borders. But same-sex marriage is one big path leading toward Republicans' goal of turning Conway into a "national Democrat" instead.

Most Republican attacks so far haven't addressed the issue head on. Instead, the most common line that's emerged is that Conway abandoned his responsibilities as defender of the state's laws. "It felt like when Jack Conway decided, after swearing an oath to defend our constitution, to not defend our constitution was a move that disqualifies himself for constitutional office," said one candidate, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, at a recent GOP debate.

State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has been more direct. In a television ad released this month, a shot of Comer walking alongside his wife and kids flashes while he says, "I know marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman."

The legal challenge to Kentucky's same-sex marriage ban is one of four cases that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear starting next week, along with cases from Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The Court will hand down a ruling later this summer, potentially injecting it into the governor's race early.

Though many Kentucky Democrats do side with Conway on the issue, they're mostly hoping to avoid the topic in this year's race. "As Republicans like Hal Heiner have said, this race will be about jobs, not gay marriage," said David Bergstein, the Kentucky Democratic Party's communications director.

Heiner did say last year, after Conway declined to defend the state ban, that he wanted to focus on other issues. Conway's move and Beshear's decision to hire outside counsel threatened to overshadow Heiner's campaign launch. "I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage, but the campaign is focused on jobs and opportunity and education for Kentucky," Heiner told the Louisville ABC affiliate after announcing his run for governor.

Heiner spokesman Doug Alexander said Heiner's views on the matter won't change regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in June, but as for the political consequences, "we'll just have to wait and see."

Conway's stand could have left him in a tough place politically, but there is a silver lining. He was criticized by some after his 2010 Senate loss for being too stiff on the campaign trail and struggling to develop a natural rapport with voters. Authenticity is key for any candidate, and on the issue of gay marriage, no one can accuse him of being inauthentic. Conway often points to his wife as the one who convinced him to follow his heart on the issue. In an interview with Time last year, Conway said she spelled it out for him in plain terms, telling him, "You know what, Jack, you really stink when you are insincere."