RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina has long prided itself on its moderate politics dating to the civil rights era, as well as its place as a New South leader and a hub for high-tech, banking and higher education.
Even though the state backed Democrat Barack Obama for president in 2008, it has maintained a socially conservative streak. North Carolina was represented for 30 years in Washington by the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the conservative stalwart who opposed abortion, gay rights and gun control.
Now the Tar Heel State finds itself drawing nationwide attention for a referendum Tuesday on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively slamming the door shut on same-sex marriages.
In the campaign’s final days, Obama cabinet members have voiced support for same-sex marriage, former President Bill Clinton has lent his voice to robocalls opposing the amendment, and 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham has been featured in full-page newspaper ads backing the gay-marriage ban. Experts expect the measure to pass.
“We’re progressive in some areas but also fairly conservative like the rest of the Southeast,” Peace College political scientist David McLennan said Monday. “This is an emotional issue and reflective of North Carolina’s long evangelical past and the strength of the social conservative community, but doesn’t reflect that we are moving even further to the right in terms of all issues.”
North Carolina is the last of the former Confederate states without a similar constitutional amendment, reflecting the Democrats’ control of the legislature until two years ago. More than 500,000 voters had cast ballots before Tuesday through one-stop and absentee options. That’s more than in 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling it out for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Tuesday’s outcome isn’t expected to forecast the fall election results, McLennan said. Democrats will gather in Charlotte in early September to nominate Obama for a second term; the Democrat narrowly won the state in 2008. Obama’s North Carolina campaign spokesman issued a statement in March saying the president opposed the amendment.
North Carolina now bans same-sex marriage, but after Republicans took control of the General Assembly following the 2010 elections, lawmakers set a referendum on the proposed amendment. Backers say it is needed to prevent judges from granting same-sex marriages.
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