'Civil Unions' Issue Dominates Vermont Primaries

July 7, 2008 - 8:26 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Vermont's controversial civil unions bill - a measure that gives homosexual couples almost all of the same rights and benefits as married couples - brought large numbers of Vermonters to the polls Tuesday for the state's primaries. However, inconclusive results have analysts looking to the November election as a final test of the measure.

Opponents defeated four House members and one senator who had voted for civil unions but failed to defeat five others, including House Judiciary Chairman Tom Little, a Republican and the main author of the civil union law.

"Both sides get something to brag about, although it's probably easier to brag about protecting your candidates than it is about defeating incumbents," said Craig Bensen of Take It to the People, a grassroots organization opposed to civil unions.

Civil unions' opponents "took out 50 percent; we were unable to take out (the other) 50 percent. But we took out a couple of significant ones, including the one incumbent senator who had voted for civil unions, and we came within 20 to 30 votes of taking out the former lieutenant governor, who is pro civil unions. So that's a strong message within the Republican Party," Bensen said.

On the Republican side, former state legislator Ruth Dwyer, an outspoken opponent of the law, beat moderate attorney William Meub, 58-to-42 percent. Dwyer's win spells trouble for Democratic incumbent Gov. Howard Dean, who signed the unpopular civil unions bill behind closed doors in April.

Tuesday's result means the governor's race in November will be a rematch of the 1998 contest when Dean won his fourth full term in office by a 56-to-41 percent margin over Dwyer.

This year's contest, however, is shaping up to be the strongest challenge Dean has ever had to face, analysts say.

Voter turnout on Tuesday was up from 20 percent in recent primaries to near 30 percent. About 69 percent of the votes were cast in the Republican primary, which included a lot of crossover votes of Democrats and independents.

Intense voter interest and effective grassroots campaigning brought a large number of new voters to the polls, and observers say the number of absentee ballots this year could be double the usual 7 percent.

The intense voter interest and clear dividing line on civil unions give Republicans an advantage in November, analysts say. Polls show that a majority of state residents oppose civil unions.

After authorizing marriage benefits for same-sex couples in a bill passed by a Democratic Legislature against the will of a majority of Vermonters, Dean seriously jeopardized his chances for reelection, analysts say.

Opponents of civil unions favor replacing the civil unions legislation - which blesses homosexual partnership - with a reciprocal benefits package that would address such issues as hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights for living units, such as two brothers living together or a daughter taking care of an aging mother.

Opponents posted "Take Back Vermont" signs throughout the state in the weeks leading up to the primaries.

"The voter turnout tells us that civil unions is a defining issue, at least as far as motivating voters to be out. That's an exceptional turnout for this year," Bensen said.