Backers of gay marriage watch, wait

Effort to overturn law expected to shift into high gear soon

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On paper, it has every appearance of a mismatched fight: The campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state has out-raised its opponents by about 13 to 1.

Washington United for Marriage, which is seeking to affirm the state's same-sex marriage law through approval of Referendum 74, has nearly $6 million in a campaign war chest -- more than half of it from a few prominent local donors with deep pockets.

Its opponent, meanwhile, Preserve Marriage Washington, has so far raised $438,000, about 10 percent of its campaign goal of $4 million. Mostly in increments of $50 and $100, the donations are coming from folks you've probably never heard of, many of them retirees and most in far-flung areas of the state.

But it might well be what's not on paper that influences how this fight will end.

What has so far been a game of wait and see between the two camps is expected to explode over the next 11 weeks into a fierce clash for the hearts of Washington voters.

The National Organization for Marriage, which has stated its commitment to defeating same-sex marriage across the country, is expected at some point to drop big money in this state and in Maryland, Maine and Minnesota, where it has also partnered with local campaigns to defeat same-sex marriage.

Leading NOM's campaign messaging is strategist Frank Schubert, a Sacramento-based powerhouse of a consultant widely credited for guiding anti-gay victories in California in 2008, Maine a year later and in North Carolina earlier this year.

That's bad news for proponents of same-sex marriage here, said Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, who called Schubert a strategy genius: "They are up against the best in the business."

In fact, the very mention of Schubert's name makes gay-marriage supporters anxious.

Schubert has "proven that he's willing to create an environment of fear and confusion," said Zach Silk, Washington United's campaign manager. "He's done a good job of scaring voters in states where he ran campaigns.

"We take him and our opponents very seriously."

Calm before storm

Except for fundraising announcements and some online advertising, the two camps have so far been eerily silent.

Yard signs have not appeared. There have been no TV or radio ads, no name-calling or mudslinging -- the calm before the storm, as one local political consultant observed.

Televised ads supporting same-sex marriage that began airing on opening night of the Olympics are being paid for not by the United for Marriage camp but by the Pride Foundation.

For their part, United for Marriage organizers are watching their opponents' every move, waiting, as Silk puts it, for the other shoe to drop.

Silk's group has an active website featuring testimonials by everyday people and prominent people alike who talk about the importance of marriage for everyone. And an army of volunteers has been calling on voters.

Their targets are people who are still conflicted on the issue, Silk said -- people who feel strongly about doing what they think is fair, just and right, but become unsure when they listen to messages from the other side.

The opposing campaign, meanwhile, which collected a record 250,000 signatures to get Referendum 74 on the ballot, is trying to convert that support into a "strong, viable network," said Chris Plante, on loan from NOM to function as deputy campaign director for Preserve Marriage.

Preserve Marriage has divided the state into 14 regions, with directors in each and volunteers conducting voter drives and planning events.

"The messaging will take place in September and October when people are paying attention," campaign chairman Joseph Backholm said.

'Not about money'

For both sides, taking that message to voters will be costly.

Preserve Marriage has a campaign goal of $4 million and Plante said he's not surprised his side is being "out-donated or that we'll be outspent."

Preserve Marriage has no interest in matching opponents dollar for dollar, he said. "It's not about money, but about votes."

"We're being outspent 2-to-1, yet we're 32-to-0," he said, referring to the number of states that currently ban gay marriage in their constitutions.

Plante said he feels confident in his campaign's strategy for spreading its message in support of traditional marriage, adding, "$4 million will be enough to do that."

Plante said his campaign will depend on grass-roots support, saying the campaign has no particular commitment yet from NOM.

And while he said he hopes to see some major donations coming from outside the state, he pointed out that NOM has "four statewide campaigns going, so I'm not relying on those national donors."

Gay-marriage supporters aren't necessarily buying that.

Pointing to trouble NOM has experienced with financial reporting in other states, they worry the organization is not being transparent about where it derives its funding.

Last week, a Seattle woman filed a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission against the organization and Preserve Marriage, saying they had failed to properly report their finances to the state, including any funds NOM may have raised here in this state.