The muted reaction to a former Republican national chairman coming out of the closet is a reminder that the culture wars can’t compete with a stagnant economy.

“At this point in the election cycle, people have a lot more important things to worry about than Ken Mehlman’s sexual orientation,” said Chris Healy, the Connecticut Republican chairman.

As a top GOP strategist who managed George W. Bush’s campaign, Mehlman once epitomized the power of gay marriage as a wedge issue — something that gay activists and politicians won’t forget.

“By all accounts, he was one of the engineers of the culture wars with Karl Rove,” said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, who recently married his long-time partner. “He set back a social agenda for a large slice of the American population.”

The Republican Party under Mehlman and Rove struck on the idea of promoting referenda on gay marriage as a way to get out the conservative vote.

But the issue has gone dormant. Once again, as James Carville preached during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

In Connecticut, the conservative Family Institute has no high-profile standard bearer, despite the primary victories of GOP candidates who they deem sympathetic on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Tom Foley, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, considers marriage to be between a man and a woman, but he also says he views the legalization of gay marriage as a non-issue.

Boughton at center of delegate scramble

Mark Boughton: Social issues off the table. (CT Mirror)

The institute’s Peter Wolfgang points to Mark Boughton and Martha Dean as conservative bright spots and potential leaders, but neither is embracing the role.

Boughton, the populist mayor of Danbury, won the nomination for lieutenant governor over a little-known businesswoman, Lisa Wilson-Foley.

“I think we helped him beat Lisa Wilson-Foley,” Wolfgang said.

But Boughton said social issues were not a factor.

“None of those social issues are on anybody’s radar right now,” Boughton said. “That’s not what people are talking about. They want jobs.”

Boughton also made clear that no one should expect him to be a crusader on same-sex marriage, if elected.

“While my personal belief is marriage is for a woman and a man, I don’t feel comfortable imposing my views on other people,” Boughton said. “I have a libertarian approach.”

Dean was the top vote-getter in the GOP primary, easily winning the nomination for attorney general. Like Boughton, she, too views marriage as a between a man and woman.

But her campaign spokesman, Paul Pacelli, said, “As far as that being a focus of her campaign, no, absolutely not.”

Wolfgang’s organization backed an unsuccessful effort two years ago to amend the state constitution to allow ballot initiatives. Without the ability to legislate through referenda, the institute is settling in for a long fight at the margins of the issue.

“I would say the fight for traditional marriage in Connecticut is now in a position analogous to the fight against abortion on the national level for 37 years,” he said. “We will work incrementally to chip away at that.”

An example, he said, is the amendment that passed last year allowing religious groups that object to same-sex marriage to legally deny the use of their facilities for gay weddings.

The biggest fight over gay marriage this year is a lawsuit in California over Proposition 8, which reversed the legislative endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Mehlman is lending his expertise as a political strategist to the fight, but gay activists in Connecticut can’t reconcile the new Mehlman with the man who helped the GOP organize anti-gay referenda in 2004 and 2006.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Mehlman acknowledged that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have helped keep the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman said. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” He asks of those who doubt his sincerity: “If they can’t offer support, at least offer understanding.”

Former state Rep. Joseph Grabarz, the first openly gay state legislator in Connecticut , said Mehlman’s acknowledgment he was gay prompted only anger among gay friends.

“I haven’t received so many emails back and forth on something in a while,” Grabarz said. “All my friends today said they will stop giving to any gay and lesbian organization that makes him a spokesperson.”

Rep. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, whose marriage was the first after same-sex unions were legalized, said the movement for equality is helped every time a gay person is comfortable enough to come out, even if it was someone who fought against gay marriage.

“But the hypocrisy,” she said, “the idea he could have used it as a wedge issue is amazing.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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