Minnesota legislators who battled for months to get the marriage amendment on the ballot are now mostly silent about it on the campaign trail.

The marriage amendment became a signature GOP accomplishment of the 2011 legislative session, yet it rarely is mentioned in stump speeches, campaign literature or on candidate websites.

As the marriage amendment balloons into the most expensive and divisive ballot question in state history, GOP legislative candidates instead are trying to impress voters with a host of accomplishments on the state budget, the economy and local initiatives.

Rep. Steve Gottwalt, a St. Cloud Republican who was the chief sponsor of the amendment in the House, calls it "a different kind of issue ... It is not something people wear on their sleeve and shout about in the public arena."

The marriage amendment fight is raging as Republicans and DFLers also are slugging it out over control of the Legislature. A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows the marriage amendment race is a dead heat with few undecided. Meanwhile, the fight to lead the House and Senate is significantly more volatile and likely to come down to a handful of races that will be won by razor-thin margins.

Silence on both sides

As both contests tighten, many legislative candidates are backing away from strong stands on the marriage debate, an issue in which both sides are stringing together fragile coalitions outside the traditional Democrat and Republican lines.

DFLers say the marriage amendment is merely a ploy to appease a handful of powerful conservative contributors who fought for years to get the issue on the ballot. The GOP, they say, is now trying to run away from the issue as the public takes a hard look at that party's legislative accomplishments.

"Republicans don't want to talk about the marriage issue because they know that's not what voters elected them to do," said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "If you poll people and asked them their top priorities for legislators, nobody mentions making something illegal that is already illegal." State statute already prohibits any legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Republicans say that despite much DFL furor over the amendment more than a year ago, DFLers are mostly silent on the issue, now that both races are so close. They say most Minnesotans are far more concerned about the economy than pointing fingers over an old marriage amendment battle.

"The public discussion is between hard-core partisans on either side of the issue, and it's really only important to them," said Tony Sutton, who was the Minnesota GOP Party chairman when the Republican-led Legislature narrowly put the measure on the ballot. "I really doubt many families are discussing this across the kitchen table when they are worried about making the mortgage payment."

Gottwalt and other Republican legislators led the effort to put a measure on the ballot that would add language into the state Constitution, defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman. Supporters say the amendment is needed in the event that judges or future legislators attempt to change the law.

On Gottwalt's campaign website, the three-term legislator lists eight top accomplishments, including balancing the budget without raising taxes, pressing legislation to prevent online drug trafficking and supporting regulatory reform. There is no mention of the marriage amendment.

His DFL challenger, Ann Nolan, tried to make it a key issue at a recent candidate forum.

Pointing at Gottwalt, she said: "In this district, we've not only got the opportunity to defeat amendment, but we can also defeat the guy who introduced it."

Several Republican candidates in tough races say privately that the issue is enormously wrenching in their communities and they would rather not discuss it at all. Republican and DFL operatives say there is no point taking a strident stand on an emotional issue that could turn off voters who might otherwise be allies.

'A tough vote'

Republican Sen. John Howe is locked in a tough re-election fight south of the Twin Cities. Howe's district, which includes Red Wing, is nearly even split between a conservative base to the south and more moderate voters to the north. He does not mention his vote in favor of the marriage amendment on his website and generally talks about it only when asked by residents or at forums.

"That was a tough vote, probably the toughest vote I took," Howe said. "It's one vote I wish I wouldn't have had to take. It did force a discussion, but I am not convinced we need to put things of that nature in the Constitution."

Howe's challenger, Matt Schmit, is not putting the marriage amendment front and center in his campaign, either.

"If it comes up, I am not afraid to talk about it," said Schmit, a DFLer. "But there are a lot of other things that this campaign is about."

Senate GOP communications chief Steve Sviggum compared the relative silence on the marriage issue to the sizable number of legislative candidates who are not listing party affiliation on their campaign literature.

"They don't want to be identified that way," said Sviggum, a former Republican House speaker and an old hand at recruiting and campaigning. "You don't want to bring on additional weight in the campaign that you don't have to. There's enough problems, there's enough personal clashes that you don't want to bring on an issue that's 50-50."

Many DFL candidates who oppose the measure have shown they are no more eager to take a strong stand, particularly in rural areas, where support for the amendment is strong, or in communities with deep union ties, where DFL feelings are divided.

"It's an odd issue," said Nate Dybvig, a media consultant who has worked for several political candidates. "If you're in a tight race, you risk alienating voters who are leaning by having a public position one way or the other or attacking your opponent's stance. With a lot of tight races, the appetite for weighing in is not there."

In the northwestern corner of Minnesota, DFLer Bruce Patterson has a laundry list of reasons voters should jettison first-term Republican Rep. Dan Fabian. Patterson takes particular issue with Fabian's role in the three-week state government shutdown and the GOP's refusal to negotiate a budget deal sooner. He is not, however, challenging Fabian's vote to put the marriage amendment on the ballot.

"It is very conservative up here," said Patterson, a longtime DFL activist. "And the Catholic Church has made a strong push for people to vote yes."

DFLers in other parts of the state pressed Patterson to make it a bigger issue in the race, which is widely seen as neck and neck.

"I said, 'No, no, no.'" Patterson said. "That might work in St. Paul or Dinkytown, but not here."

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044