If you live in Washington State, you need to know who Frank Schubert is. And by that, I mean you need to know what Frank Schubert does. Frank Schubert thinks about gay people—a lot. He's the country's top strategist when it comes to defeating same-sex marriage on election night.
Consider Maine, three years ago. That state was in the same position Washington State is in right now. Equality activists there were defending a same-sex-marriage law passed by their legislature, and gay-rights advocates appeared to be owning the public dialogue. Throughout the first weeks of October, Maine's defenders of marriage equality were raising more cash than their opponents—final totals showed they amassed $4 million, compared to their opponents' $2.5 million—and they were generating more public support. A poll at the time, by Pan Atlantic, showed 52 percent of Maine voters in favor of same-sex-marriage rights and only 43 percent opposed. "We're ahead in the polls and we're raising money," said a campaign worker in Question One, a documentary about that state's same-sex-marriage fight. It was four weeks before the vote. Nobody had heard a peep from Schubert.
Then his ads began.
"It has everything to do with schools," explained a Maine teacher named Charla Bansley in one of the commercials. She was sitting inside a classroom. The frame then cut to a Massachusetts couple sitting on their couch, where the mother lamented, "After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, our son came home and told us that boys can marry other boys. He's in second grade." The father then said: "We tried to stop public schools from teaching children about gay marriage, but the court said we had no right to object or pull him out of class." The 30-second spot closed by cutting back to the teacher, who said that voters must "prevent homosexual marriage from being taught in Maine schools."
May the record show: The same-sex- marriage laws that passed in Massachusetts, Maine, California, Washington, and other states never required teaching anything in schools.
But that's how Schubert rolls. Swooping into Maine in 2009 and California the year before, he was the architect of successful—albeit dishonest—political campaigns that repealed same-sex marriage in both states with ads about a pro-gay curriculum. And in both states, same-sex marriage had been ahead in the polls before losing at the ballot with just more than 47 percent support. Which is to say, the polling trends in those states reversed after Schubert arrived.
Now he's coming to Washington State.
Records from local television stations and cable providers show that Schubert's firm, Mission: Public Affairs, has reserved nearly $1.5 million in commercials to reject Referendum 74. They'll begin airing across the state beginning on October 15.
And the ad I describe above is softball for him.
Schubert's other ads in Maine became more graphic. One commercial showed a chalkboard with the words "What is gay sex?" with check marks next to "kissing" and "hugging." And another one went so far with flashing the words "SEX TOYS" across the screen that even the local anti-gay campaign, Stand for Marriage Maine, told Schubert not to air it.
But that stuff works—dwelling on sex, dwelling on schools, scaring people about The Children!—and again, Schubert has never lost.
Ominously, in Washington State today, things stand almost exactly where they stood in Maine and California before Schubert showed up. Opponents of marriage equality are behind in the polls here, and they have less money. Polling last month by SurveyUSA showed the effort to reject R-74 had only 38 percent support (compared to 56 percent to approve it); meanwhile, the Elway Poll showed Schubert's side with 37 percent (compared to 51 percent to approve it). As for cash, Preserve Marriage Washington has reported a comparatively meager $1.9 million to Washington United for Marriage's $9 million haul. It's about four weeks before the vote. Nobody has heard a peep from Schubert.
They will, though. Schubert responded to my request for comment with "No thanks," but he did shed light on his strategy in a recent interview with the Seattle Times.
"The approve side has already told people all they can tell them," Schubert told the paper. "They may say it a lot of different ways—have brothers and mothers and grandparents and church members say it, but there's nothing more for them to say. Once we engage voters, we'll be able to move [them] in our direction, especially when we remind them that same-sex couples already have full legal equality."
In other words, Schubert knows we haven't heard his side yet, and that his ads are inherently more effective than ours—because they're based on fear. He doesn't need as much money. He only needs to scare the shit out of about 13 percent of Washington voters to get a majority of people voting to disapprove Referendum 74. To do that requires just one statewide blitz that blankets TV screens with his message just as ballots are arriving. And with $1.5 million in ads on the way, he can do it.