Lakewood, COLO.—While the national media fixated on Indiana and North Carolina Tuesday night, something extraordinary happened in Colorado. Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty pulled a Newt Gingrich and shut down the entire legislative process here to stop a civil unions bill.
The bill would have passed, but McNulty and House Republican leadership invoked the nuclear option to kill it by stopping every vote on every bill left Tuesday night—all 37 of them. Wednesday is the last day of the session, so any bill that didn't get voted on Tuesday night is effectively dead (although Senate Democrats may be able to resurrect a few). That includes bills by Republicans and Democrats alike on water storage projects (very important in arid Colorado), school discipline, Medicaid funding, compensation for victims of the North Fork forest fire, and driving under the influence of marijuana.
The fallout was immediate. Wednesday, on the same day President Obama endorsed gay marriage, Governor Hickenlooper announced a call for a special legislative session to fix the damage, including civil unions.
Why does this matter in November? Three reasons: social issues, swing voters, and raw politics.
One, social issues have proven repeatedly to be a third rail for Colorado Republicans. It cost them a 2010 Senate seat and shaped the gubernatorial election. In addition to the civil unions debacle, the anti-abortion "personhood" measure will be back on the ballot for a third time in 2012. Polling shows Coloradans support civil unions two-to-one.
Two, Colorado voters, especially independent voters, pride themselves on being pragmatic and centrist. Tuesday night was the opposite—Republicans chose hard-right ideology over governing. Colorado taxpayers expect the latter, not the former. This hurts Republicans in a critical presidential swing state among suburban independents.
And three, in raw politics terms, the vote angered Tim Gill, the multimillionaire philanthropist who plays a major role in gay rights legislation around the country, including New York's gay marriage law. Gill issued a statement on Wednesday: "It is unfortunate that Republican leaders chose to ignore the many personal stories of committed, loving couples who simply want to be treated fairly under our laws. Using parliamentary gimmicks to kill the civil unions bill does not represent the Colorado that we all know and love."
Gill's warning after Republicans killed the civil unions bill in committee last year was even more direct: "I sincerely hope to see civil unions debated on the House floor. And if not, we will have an opportunity to change the legislature, because in the end, Colorado deserves better."
Mario Nicolais, a GOP attorney and spokesman for the conservative pro-civil union group Coloradans for Freedom, told Fox31's Eli Stokols that it would cost his party in November.
"Civil unions will pass," Nicolais said. "And so will the Republican House majority."
Not surprisingly, fundraising appeals from One Colorado, the main gay rights advocacy group, and the House Democratic Majority Project went out shortly after the vote. Worth noting: Republicans hold the Colorado House by a single vote. Democrats have a five-vote majority in the state Senate.
So it was bad enough that House Republican leadership stopped a bill supported by a majority of Coloradans and many in their own party. But the fact that they would rather keep gay people from being on their partner's insurance than do the people's business is what will have lasting damage, in November and beyond. Once again, Colorado Republicans, like national Republicans, are so wedded to their Tea Party ideology that they can't get out from under their own base in order to win elections.