— More valuable than any poll, Minnesota lawmakers got a strong pulse of their constituents this week on gay marriage through district-by-district, town-by-town results of a vote that rejected a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
It will give some legislators cover and others concern should new legislative fronts open in the gay rights debate, including an all-out push for legalization of gay marriage.
An analysis by The Associated Press of vote patterns Tuesday identified 55 members of the incoming Legislature — a full quarter of the institution — who would be forced to choose between the prevailing tide in their party and the preference of their constituents. The data would undoubtedly be used by both sides to exert public and political pressure on a highly controversial matter.
Already, some Democrats say they plan to open a gay marriage campaign when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January. Despite reclaiming control of both legislative chambers, Democrats are sure to find squeamishness in their own ranks, especially among the 26 members from districts where voters expressed a clear preference for reserving marriage as between a man and a woman.
A case in point is Rep. Patti Fritz, a Faribault Democrat whose Rice County district backed the constitutional ban by a nearly 16-point margin. Fritz voted against putting the amendment on the ballot in 2011. Now, she hopes she won't have to deal with the topic in the next couple of years.
"When you bring up an emotional issue like that, it takes center stage and steals everyone else's air, and everything else has to take a back seat," she said.
Party leaders are sounding a cautious note. Gov. Mark Dayton, a gay marriage supporter, and the top Democrats in the House and Senate hedge on whether a push for legal gay marriage would happen soon. Democrats looking for a middle course could decide to pursue measures to expand gay rights — with domestic partner or civil union legislation — but stop short of a push for gay marriage itself.
The AP analysis underscores how gay rights measures are dicey for both parties. Among the findings:
— 21 Republicans represent House districts where a majority of voters opposed the constitutional restriction. Another Republican is from a district almost evenly split, with ballots left blank making the difference against the measure. Several Republicans represent suburban districts west of Minneapolis where the amendment went down by nearly 20 points.
— 16 House Democrats hail from districts where the amendment had majority support, and one more is from an area where there were more "yes" votes than "no" votes but the proposal failed to muster an outright majority.
— 10 Democrats hold Senate seats in districts in which most voters favored the gay marriage ban, including six from northern Minnesota. In three, more than 60 percent wanted the ban in the constitution. It was close enough in incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk's district that blank ballots automatically counting against the amendment made the difference.
— 8 Republicans in the new Senate minority represent areas where a majority of constituents opposed the amendment, including a few by 10 percentage points or more. Two others, both from Rochester, come from 50-50 districts where voters skipping the question meant failure for the initiative.
To be sure, Minnesota has a state law barring same-sex marriage and some voters were hesitant to use the state Constitution for that purpose. And some lawmakers with upward ambitions would be loath to buck their party platforms, which are fashioned by the ardent activists who can easily doom a statewide candidacy.
Rep. Steve Gottwalt, the House Republican who led the push to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot, represents a St. Cloud district where voters opposed the amendment by about a 2-point margin. Gottwalt said it would be a mistake to think that all those who opposed the amendment would automatically support legalizing gay marriage.
"Those are two very separate things," Gottwalt said before sounding a conciliatory note. "How we address legal rights and how we as a society show genuine respect and tolerance and value for people who are different — that's a discussion that has to continue, even for those of us who question if legislation is the right way to do it."
Members of both parties would likely face heavy pressure from citizens and interest groups if gay rights legislation is introduced.
Minnesotans United for All Families, which led the successful campaign to defeat the marriage ban, harnessed massive grassroots energy in its effort. The group's long list of volunteers and other resources will remain in the hands of gay rights groups, which could try to activate them again to lobby for pending proposals.
"We understand that right now we're presented with a unique opportunity and energy," said Richard Carlbom, who managed the campaign. "I think we need to come together as a coalition and determine what the next step is. But the conversation is not over."
But Democrats from areas that supported the ban would get pressure from the opposite direction, too.
"They would have to consider if they want to put special interests ahead of a very clear message from their own voters," said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. That group, which lobbies for socially conservative causes and pushed to get the marriage amendment on the ballot, would fight any legislation "that tries to create a marital status in the law for same-sex relationships."
That would extend to bills to permit civil unions or similar arrangements, Prichard said.
Democratic Rep. Andrew Falk of Murdock represents a rural, western Minnesota district where 65 percent of voters backed the marriage ban — more than in any other House district represented by a Democrat. He said the new Democratic majorities have an obligation to focus on what he called "basic issues": the state budget, school funding, roads and bridges.
Falk wouldn't commit to a position on potential legislation to legalize gay marriage.
"I do think that ultimately, history sides with the people who vote to expand rights," Falk said. "But until I would actually see something moving forward, I just don't want to speculate on possibilities."
Condon reported from Minneapolis.