BOWIE, Md. Irene Huskens has the wedding venue picked out: a charming bed-and-breakfast in southern Maryland. But the wedding is no sure thing.
The plans made by Huskens, a 43-year-old police captain, and her partner, Leia Burks, hinge on whether Marylanders make history on Nov. 6 by voting to legalize same-sex marriage. A "yes" vote, and the wedding is on. A "no" victory? Huskens is loath to consider it.
"There are a lot of Marylanders who want to set the precedent of equality who will vote from their gut for fairness," she said at her colonial suburban home in Prince George's County, where she and Burks are raising two adopted children.
Dating back to 1998, 32 states have held votes on same-sex marriage, and all 32 have opposed it. Maryland is one of four states with Nov. 6 referendums on the issue and gay-marriage advocates believe there's a strong chance the streak will be broken.
In Maryland, Maine and Washington, it's an up-or-down vote on legalizing same-sex marriage. In Minnesota, there's a measure to place a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution, as 30 other states have done previously.
Groups supporting same-sex marriage, which has been legalized by court rulings or legislative votes in six states and the District of Columbia, are donating millions of dollars to the four campaigns. They're hoping for at least one victory to deprive their foes of the potent argument that gay marriage has never prevailed at the ballot box.
"Our opposition uses this talking point with elected officials and in courtrooms," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. The national gay-rights group is contributing more than $4.4 million to the four state campaigns.
"If we're able to win one of these four, it will be a narrative change proof that the public has moved our way dramatically," said Griffin.
Opponents of gay marriage expect to be outspent in the four states, perhaps by more than 2-to-1 overall, yet they remain hopeful their winning streak can be preserved.
"We definitely can win all four if we can increase the fundraising," said Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, which has pumped more than $2 million into the campaigns against gay marriage. Its TV advertising is just beginning, including in the expensive markets that reach Marylanders in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
"We do have a big hill to climb to be able to effectively communicate our message," Brown said. "But we don't need to match the other side we win repeatedly while being outspent."
All four states are expected to be carried in November by President Barack Obama, who came out in support of same-sex marriage earlier this year.
In Maryland, as in Maine and Washington, the most recent polls show a lead for the supporters of same-sex marriage. But comparable leads in other states notably in California in 2008 evaporated by Election Day, and Josh Levin, manager of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign, expects the final result to be extremely close.
Levin and his allies are aware that Maryland, because its polls close earlier than Maine's or Washington's, could become the first state to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote.
"We cannot take it for granted," Levin said. "That being said, if we make it happen in Maryland, the lessons learned here can be applied across the country."
The campaign has been intensifying in recent weeks, widening rifts among Maryland's most prominent Catholics, among black clergy, even among NFL teammates. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has endorsed same-sex marriage; center Matt Birk wrote a newspaper column opposing it.
The divide among Catholics the state's largest denomination has been striking. Archbishop William Lori and the Maryland Catholic Conference are actively campaigning against same-sex marriage. Catholic VIPs supporting it include Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
In both Maryland and Washington state, voters are being asked to approve or reject a same-sex marriage bill passed by the legislature earlier this year. In each case, opponents were able to collect enough signatures to challenge the laws.