INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana voters who'd hoped to decide whether to place the state's gay marriage ban in the constitution won't find the issue on the November ballot. But same-sex marriage is still playing a role in many political races, giving Democrats hopes of gaining a critical foothold in the heavily Republican state.
From Marion County Clerk Beth White, who's running for secretary of state, to two challengers for legislative seats, Democratic candidates are using the issue to raise money and support in their fight to unseat GOP incumbents.
"It has been a boost for fundraising," said White, who performed more than 300 same-sex weddings over a handful of days in May after a federal judge found the state's ban unconstitutional. "There have been a number of people, people I know in particular, who have said 'I saw you on the TV and I saw you doing that important thing and we want people like you in our government."'
Gay marriage supporters are bullish on the issue for the first time in Indiana, saying they've been able to make an aggressive push on the issue following a surprising victory during the Indiana General Assembly's 2014 session that kept the constitutional amendment off the November ballot. Workers and volunteers with the umbrella group that fought the ban, Freedom Indiana, went to work on other campaigns and, in one case, even entered a state House race.
It's a stark shift from the May primary, when social conservatives successfully ousted a pair of House Republicans who voted against letting voters decide on the ban. They also supported the author of the marriage ban, House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, who faced a surprisingly strong challenge after ethics questions surrounding his family's nursing home business were raised.
Republicans aren't trumpeting the gay marriage issue as loudly as in past elections, but conservative activists say it's a powerful tool for them at the ballot box.
Connie Mackey, president of the Family Research Council's political arm, said conservative voters will stay home if they don't feel like Republicans align with them on social issues. She pointed to a congressional primary in New York where incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna faced a tougher-than-usual primary challenge because he backed gay marriage.
"I think it was a lesson that changing marriage is not an issue that really is going to help Republicans," Mackey said.
Legally, Indiana is in limbo while the courts sort out whether the same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago heard arguments in challenges to bans in Indiana and Wisconsin last week, and most people on both sides of the argument expect the issue to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Top Indiana lawmakers haven't said whether they'll revisit the issue of a constitutional ban when they reconvene in January.
That has left Democrats to make their case. White has used pictures of her officiating same-sex marriages in her campaign to unseat Republican Connie Lawson. And two openly gay Democrats also are running on the issue as they challenge Statehouse incumbents
The two men have relied on a network of volunteers and donors built during the 2014 legislative battle. Former Freedom Indiana member Thad Girardot is taking on state Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne, who voted against the ban. J.D. Ford faces state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, who was the most outspoken supporter of the ban.
While White welcomes the added support, she said that wasn't her motivation for performing the marriages.
"Even if I thought it was a political liability, I would still do what I did," she said. "I believe leaders in this state need to be on the side of equality and inclusion."