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Originally published June 30, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified June 30, 2012 at 9:29 PM

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Gay donors back GOP legislator who voted for same-sex marriage

When the Legislature legalized gay marriage, state Rep. Maureen Walsh's passionate speech in favor of the law went viral. Now, as the Republican from Walla Walla gears up to defend her seat against a member of her own party, she is seeing an uptick in campaign cash from pro-gay marriage donors from around the country.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Watch Rep. Maureen Walsh's speech

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When the time came to vote on a historic bill legalizing gay marriage in Washington, state Rep. Maureen Walsh stood up and delivered an emotional speech explaining her decision to buck her party and vote in favor of same-sex marriage.

The 51-year-old Republican from Walla Walla told her fellow representatives about the death of her husband and how badly she missed the loving bond they shared: "How could I deny the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life? To me it seems almost cruel."

Her outspoken stance brought an outpouring of support from around the world — and something else: an infusion of campaign contributions from wealthy gay donors from across the country for her re-election.

A prominent national anti-gay-marriage group has promised to spend big to help challengers defeat Republican legislators who voted for gay marriage, but, so far, that money has not materialized in this race.

With the general election still months away, records from the Public Disclosure Commission show that more than 60 percent of Walsh's individual contributions have come from out-of-state backers, amounting to just over $5,000. It is a small amount compared to the money she has received from political groups, but it is coming in at a faster pace than previous elections.

In 2008, before Walsh became a known champion of gay rights, she raised just $3,800 from individual contributors. Almost none of them were from outside Washington.

But Walsh came on the radar of pro-gay donors in 2010 after supporting domestic partnerships and receiving a censure from the Franklin County Republican Party in the process. In her re-election race that year, she received large donations from prominent gay-rights backers, including Colorado software giant Tim Gill, who chairs the powerful Gill Action Fund, a political-action group that supports gay-friendly legislators.

It is a pattern that is becoming more common as more state legislatures tackle gay marriage: A Republican or a conservative Democrat takes a bold public stance in favor of same-sex marriage, and soon after, receives the support of wealthy donors trying to offset possible backlash.

The four Republican senators from New York who provided crucial votes to legalize gay marriage there in 2011 are the most well-known examples. It was reported earlier this year that they were lavished with campaign contributions.

Walsh is the only legislator seeing a noticeable benefit in the form of donations in 2012 Washington state races. Of the six Republicans who crossed party lines during the gay-marriage vote, Walsh is the only one who will face a challenger from within her own party this fall.

Four of the six aren't running for re-election this year, and state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who provided one of the key votes in the Senate, is running against a Democrat in a socially liberal district.

Conservative district

Walsh, on the other hand, is running for re-election in a staunchly conservative district against Mary Ruth Edwards, a teacher from Prosser and a former Marine who is anchoring her campaign in part with her opposition to gay marriage.

Edwards ran for a U.S. House seat in 2010 as a member of the Constitution Party but was eliminated in the primary. She said she decided to run this year after she learned redistricting would place her in Walsh's district.

"After I looked up who my representative was, I said to myself: I don't want to be represented by someone who says she is a Republican, but was a co-sponsor of the bill to redefine marriage," she said.

Edwards has raised $807.75 for her campaign so far, but she could see a significant boost if the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) — one of the largest funders in the fight against gay marriage — makes good on its pledge to funnel $250,000 to any Republican willing to challenge GOP legislators in Washington who voted for the marriage bill.

NOM President Brian Brown won't comment on specific plans for Walsh's district, but he said his group is committed to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat gay marriage at the ballot in Washington, as well as individual races.

Despite that looming threat, Walsh, a mother of three who spends her time outside Olympia running a kitschy onion-themed restaurant in Walla Walla, is in a good position for re-election. Sixty-four percent of her district voted against extending domestic partnerships to gay couples in 2009, but a year later, they overwhelmingly re-elected Walsh, despite her support for the measure.

"It is certainly (NOM's) right to pump all that money, but to be honest, I think I am on the right side of history," she said. "It's a waste of money for them to do that. My district knows me."

It isn't unusual for politicians to be out of step with their district on a high-profile issue and still be re-elected time and again, said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former chairman of the state Republican Party.

"Voters look at the whole person," Vance said. "Voters are willing to re-elect people even if they take a position against them."

Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, bucked his party and voted against gay marriage, but his staff took the time to respond to letters from voters explaining how he came to his vote. The personal touch helped, he said, and it hasn't been an issue in his re-election campaign so far.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, the only other House Republican to vote with Walsh in favor of gay marriage, is now running in a crowded field for lieutenant governor. He said that the marriage vote has had a marginal effect on his campaign, which is lagging behind other candidates in fundraising. He is focusing on his conservative fiscal record and is not accepting any donations from interest groups.

Taking no chances

Despite Walsh's incumbent advantage and strong margins in the past, gay donors don't want to take any chances.

Notable gay philanthropists Mel Heifetz and Weston Milliken are among her top contributors. Both gave Walsh the maximum contribution of $900. Famed gay and lesbian advocate Urvashi Vaid has also given to Walsh.

With more states taking up the issue of same-sex marriage, there is more interest in state races among gay donors than ever before, said Mike Dively, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and runs a foundation that supports gay and lesbian youth around the country.

He keeps an eye out for important state races and gave $250 to Walsh after a friend forwarded her video to him.

"Donors are becoming much more conscious of the importance of not just making a contribution here or there, but being very targeted and being very thoughtful about candidates," he said. "And certainly it doesn't matter if they are Republicans or Democrats."

Edwards criticized her opponent for taking support from donors outside the state, calling Walsh out of touch with her district.

Walsh acknowledged that taking money from "out-of-towners" may turn off some, but added that she was happy people had been moved by her story.

Soon after her emotional vote, Walsh received a phone call from a gay teenager from the Midwest who had just come out of the closet and was contemplating suicide. He had seen her video and decided not to harm himself.

"Win or lose, my next campaign — and I certainly want to win — but when you hear things like that, you think, 'My work is done.' "

Javier Panzar: 206-464-2250 or jpanzar@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @jpanzar

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