The National Organization for Marriage’s top-secret strategy documents disclosed Monday in a state investigation highlight that, along with working in the most cynical fashion imaginable to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks,” NOM also wanted badly to strip away the freedom to marry in New Hampshire. In fact, no state was a higher priority for NOM. Of its “$20 Million Strategy for Victory,” a full $2 million was dedicated to repealing the freedom to marry in the Granite State. Yet last week, we beat back NOM, defeating the repeal bill by a margin of 211-116, bringing over a majority of Republican lawmakers, 119-115, to our side.
Sixteen months ago, that triumph seemed next to impossible.
In November 2011, New Hampshire had just seen the largest Tea Party/GOP sweep in the country, with the legislature soon to be sworn in as 75% Republican. Though gay rights and marriage had next to nothing to do with the elections, NOM nevertheless boasted of flexing their electoral muscles.
NOM had a willing axe-man in New Hampshire, new House Speaker William O’Brien, a right-wing social conservative who promised to prioritize repeal. “[New Hampshire] will be the next battleground,” NOM President Brian Brown said the day after the elections, “and we are confident of victory.” His partner-in-crime, NOM Board Chairwoman Maggie Gallagher, said, “NOM’s next immediate challenge is to get a vote reversing gay marriage in New Hampshire – to show… that history is not unidirectional.”
Governor John Lynch committed to vetoing any repeal measure, but NOM was confident that it could secure a two-thirds majority in the new legislature to override the veto and overturn the law.
Freedom to Marry knew our side had to build a powerful campaign that could reach GOP lawmakers – and quickly. Yet this was easier said than done. In my first couple of visits to the state, I reached out to top GOP lobbyists and not one of them would take our campaign as a client. So I reached out to the top Democratic lobbyists. I was shocked when I got the same answer from them — a whispered no. Post-election, it was clear some of them feared that representing us was a bad business proposition.
With 200 new lawmakers flooding into the largest legislative body in America, nearly all Republican, and with the threatened repeal vote coming as soon as our opponents were ready to strike, Freedom to Marry and our partners got to work. Here’s how we thwarted NOM.
Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize.
Our all-out focus was on how to surpass 133 votes in the House – the number we would need to sustain the governor’s veto. We determined we had nearly all the Democrats, so that meant focusing our entire effort on making the case to Republicans. We had to convince business-oriented and libertarian-minded Republicans to break away from antigay and social-agenda politics to vote down repeal.
Enlisting Right-of-Center Civic and Business Leaders.
One element of our strategy was to enlist a who’s who of business and civic leaders, with a focus on right-of-center Granite Staters. Lew Feldstein, the just-retired president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, took on the chairmanship of Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, the campaign that we built along with state partners and the Human Rights Campaign. Lew worked his Rolodex and made the case to dozens of VIPs about joining the campaign. By the time of the vote, we had a nearly 300 person who’s who of New Hampshire, with a strong right-of-center bent: the former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the former chair of the Business & Industry Association, the owners of several of New Hampshire’s best-known businesses, a former GOP House majority leader, Senator Judd Gregg’s former chief of staff, and on and on. Skillfully deploying these local voices to make the case throughout the campaign, our Standing Up campaign won the earned-media battle.
Because we couldn’t enlist a traditional Republican lobbyist to work on preserving the marriage law, Freedom to Marry turned over every stone to put together a GOP team. We found a young and openly gay conservative, the secretary of the New Hampshire Young Republicans, who had moved with his partner to the Granite State in 2009 and was now ready to do battle. We paired him up with the operative who had executed our winning Republican strategy in New York. Standing Up for New Hampshire Families also brought onboard the former communications director for the New Hampshire Republican Party. Together, they crafted a GOP-focused lobbying, vote-counting, and media strategy, and they executed it superbly. Later in the campaign, we secured New Hampshire’s best-respected GOP lobbyist, former Senate President Ed Dupont, who helped our team seal the deal.
Good Old Fashioned Field Work.
Quite simply, we outworked our opponents. Our Standing Up for NH Families field team ran phone banks and organized meetings between same-sex couples and a targeted list of lawmakers. We built a powerful new media presence. In the end, we generated more than 30,000 constituent contacts to a targeted list of lawmakers, who consistently said they heard more from our side than our opponents’.
National Republican Leader Engagement.
Coming off the New York victory, in which we passed the freedom to marry bill through a GOP-led state senate, some of our strong national GOP supporters shared our commitment to ensuring that the right-of-center momentum on our side wasn’t reversed in New Hampshire. Former chairman of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman worked relentlessly to make the case to GOP lawmakers, trekking up to Concord, reaching out via email and phone calls, offering strategy guidance, writing a powerful op-ed piece in the Manchester Union-Leader, and always offering to do more. Paul Singer, the hedge fund entrepreneur who was a lead contributor and fundraiser for the New York marriage effort, once again came through with a crucial contribution that enabled Freedom to Marry to powerfully make the case. We enlisted Jan Van Lohuizen, pollster for George W. Bush, to do polling and share with GOP lawmakers his findings that for the vast majority a vote for repeal would be unwise politically.
Building Electoral Power.
Given NOM’s involvement in the 2010 elections and their m.o. of threats to bully and bluff Republican lawmakers, we knew our side needed to muscle up. As a result, top local Republican campaign expert Sean Owen created a PAC called New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality, and committed to raising and spending at least $100,000 to support Republican lawmakers who stood for equality.
Making Our Case, New Hampshire Style.
Undergirding every aspect of our campaign was the fact that — thanks to years of investment in local organizing and public education as well as powerful national momentum — New Hampshire residents support the freedom to marry and overwhelmingly oppose repealing the law. “Live Free or Die” is the state slogan for a reason: liberty and freedom are core values in the Granite State. As we made our case on television, the radio, in the press, and in direct mail, we never let New Hampshire lawmakers, or voters, forget that — in the words of Dick Cheney (whom we actually quoted frequently to GOP lawmakers) — “freedom means freedom for everyone.” The campaign introduced Granite Staters to a personification of that value, Craig Stowell, a former Marine and conservative Republican who wanted nothing more than to be the best man in his gay brother’s wedding, just as his brother had been for him. We enlisted Craig as GOP co-chair of Standing Up, and he wowed them.
Last Wednesday, the day of the vote, I sat in the gallery in Concord as the Speaker turned to the repeal bill. One Republican lawmaker after another stood up to speak out against the measure, powerfully combating the Republicans who spoke out in favor. The fact that only GOP lawmakers spoke on our side was by design, the orchestration of our talented campaign team. We wanted this to be an internal debate about what the GOP in New Hampshire stood for. And as our side won vote after vote that day, I could only think about how far we’d come. Our opponents had promised to secure two-thirds of the vote, yet in the end, we were the ones who got two-thirds of the lawmakers – with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats in voting to uphold the freedom to marry.
Our New Hampshire job isn’t over. NOM’s Brian Brown, who obviously still hasn’t learned that it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa, blustered that “because of the vote, we now have a target list,” promising retaliation. He also committed NOM to electing a governor who will work for repeal, and unfortunately, that’s not as far-fetched. Both GOP frontrunners strongly support repeal, although they are reluctant to offend voters by talking about it. So we need to – and will – stay vigilant and finish the job.
In New Hampshire, Freedom to Marry stared down, and took down, NOM, and preserved a hard-fought win in a way that again transformed the fight for the next wave of states and national work. Help us do the same in other priority states this year by supporting Freedom to Marry’s Win More States Fund. Momentum is no doubt on our side, but it takes hard work and resources to turn that momentum into marriage.