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Originally published Monday, August 20, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Gay-marriage campaigns on verge of unleashing their ads

While on paper the same-sex-marriage fight seems financially mismatched, it is what's not on paper that could influence results in November.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ref. 74

Ballot measure

The Legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239 concerning marriage for same-sex couples, modified domestic-partnership law, and religious freedom, and voters have filed a sufficient referendum petition on this bill.

This bill would allow same-sex couples to marry, preserve domestic partnerships only for seniors, and preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize, or accommodate any marriage ceremony.

Should this bill be:[ ] Approved [ ] Rejected

Source: Secretary of State's voter guide

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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 (NOM), 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.

"It's been remarkably quiet and feels like they are laying in the weeds a bit," he said. "We are waiting for them to surface and start aggressively campaigning."

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."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima is planning in-pew donations as part of what it is calling Preserve Marriage month.

The Most Rev. Joseph J. Tyson, in a letter to pastors, asked them to announce a special appeal at each Mass this weekend or Sept. 1 and 2 to promote a Sept. 8 and 9 in-pew collection for the campaign.

It's that kind of grass-roots support that Plante said his campaign will depend on, 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.

Silk said he's been struck by the small size and number of opponents' contributions.

"We certainly know their ability to energize supporters but it appears they are unable to convert that into investments in the campaign," he said.

"But we know there are deep pockets there. So while it looks disproportionate now, I would not be surprised to see them coming in at $6 to $8 million."

Early on, United for Marriage had intended to match its opponents dollar for dollar, when its organizers believed that side would raise at least $6 million.

With 11 weeks still left in the campaign season, United for Marriage on Monday was already reporting $5.7 million in donations, with more coming in all the time.

"Clearly for us the important thing is that we have thousands of individual and allies in the business community willing to invest in the campaign," Silk said.

Now, he said the campaign is "raising what is takes to win."

In the end, however, Emmons, the political consultant said, "it's about who shows up to vote."

"The people writing those $50 checks? They vote," he pointed out.

To beat Schubert, he said, same-sex-marriage proponents will need more than just money; "they need to be able to execute a flawless plan."

Schubert is known for using TV ads to drive home a message about what he calls the "consequences" of same-sex marriage.

A typical one during California's Proposition 8 campaign, for example, showed a young girl running up to her mother: "Mom, guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince can marry a prince, and I can marry a princess!"

Observers say he's likely to use a similar strategy in Washington.

Same-sex-marriage supporters, Emmons said, "are gonna be playing the game with different rules than Frank is."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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