Foes and supporters of same-sex marriage are gearing up for five costly and bruising statewide showdowns in the coming months on an issue that evenly divides Americans.
It's an election year subplot sure to stir up heated emotions — even beyond the confines of North Carolina, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington state. National advocacy groups will be deeply engaged, and advertising is likely to surface from each side that outrages the other.
"It's crunch time," said Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, the paramount fundraiser for opponents of gay marriage. "We view it as a massive opportunity for a national referendum."
Brown predicts same-sex marriage will be rebuffed in all five states, while gay-marriage supporters hope they can score at least a few victories and break a long losing streak. Since 1998, 31 states have had ballot measures related to same-sex marriage, and in every state the opponents ended up prevailing.
However, the most recent vote was in 2009. Gay-rights activists believe public opinion is moving inexorably in their direction, citing both national polls and policy developments such as repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
"The events of past few years are bringing new energy and vigor to our side that allows our messaging to constantly evolve," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group. "The other side has remained very stale and stagnant."
A look at the states likely to vote on marriage this year:
In North Carolina on its May 8 primary day and in Minnesota on Election Day in November, voters will weigh in on constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by Republican-controlled legislatures that would ban gay marriage. Neither state allows same-sex marriage now, but supporters say the amendments — similar to those approved in 29 other states — would prevent courts from empowering same-sex couples to wed in the future.
In Maine, gay-marriage supporters have placed a bill on the Nov. 6 ballot to legalize same-sex marriage. The legislature approved a similar bill in 2009 but it was overturned by 53 percent of the voters in a referendum that fall. The key question is whether voter sentiment has changed enough in three years to reverse the outcome.
In Maryland and Washington, foes of same-sex marriage are expected to gather enough signatures in the coming weeks to place measures on the Nov. 6 ballot that would overturn recently passed same-sex marriage laws. The laws are strongly backed by Democratic Govs. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Christine Gregoire of Washington — both Roman Catholics — and strongly opposed by the Catholic hierarchy.
Washington may provide gay-marriage supporters with their best chance of victory. It has the only electorate in the nation that has voted to grant gay couples the same rights as heterosexual married couples — upholding a comprehensive domestic-partnership law in 2009.
"We can't take anything for granted — we have to make the case," said Evan Wolfson, president of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "We believe Washington is a state we can we win."
Freedom to Marry is among numerous national organizations girding for what Wolfson calls "multimillion-dollar slugfests" in the five states. It's launching a "Win More States" fund with a goal of raising $3 million for the campaigns.
Bigger contributions are likely to come from the Human Rights Campaign in support of gay marriage and from the National Organization for Marriage opposing it, although neither group has publicly detailed its spending plans as they ponder how to deploy resources for multiple battlefronts.
"It's going to be a big challenge, but I think we're up to it," said NOM's Brown. "All we need is enough to get our message out."