NEW YORK — Gay-rights activists celebrated a few bright spots on Election Day, but they also suffered some major setbacks – including losses by key supporters in Congress and the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
On both sides of the marriage debate, the Iowa vote was seen as a signal that judges in other states could face similar punitive challenges.
The congressional results further clouded the prospects for repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy so that gays could serve openly in the military. Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, hope for a repeal vote in the Senate during the upcoming lame-duck session, but the post-election climate may strengthen the hand of conservatives wary of repeal.
And leading gay activists acknowledged that the Republican takeover in the House of Representatives likely doomed short-term hopes for major gay-rights legislation addressing workplace discrimination and federal recognition of same-sex couples.
"The loss of the House to anti-equality leaders is a serious blow," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. He said the incoming GOP House leadership had a track record of opposing gay-rights initiatives.
Among the Democratic losers on Tuesday were several staunch gay-rights supporters, including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, an Iraq war veteran who volunteered to be the House leader of the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes any role for gays in the military, welcomed the defeats of Murphy and Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., the former Navy admiral who lost his bid for a Senate seat.
"Both candidates tried to disguise their extreme social liberalism with military uniforms they had previously worn," said Donnelly, who noted that Republican Sen. John McCain – a key to blocking repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" – was re-elected in Arizona.
Perhaps most sobering for gay activists was the removal of the three Iowa judges after a campaign intended to punish them for joining a unanimous ruling last year that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated Iowa's constitution.
That ruling, making Iowa one of five states to legalize gay marriage, still stands. But gay marriage foes said they plan to press Iowa Republicans who took over the governor's office and the state House to work toward a new ban.
Justices Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit will be removed at year's end after about 54 percent of voters backed their ouster – the first time Iowa voters have removed a Supreme Court justice since the current system began in 1962.
The National Organization for Marriage and other foes of gay marriage around the country spent an estimated $1 million on the removal effort, while the three judges chose not to raise money and campaign.
"This spiteful campaign is a wake-up call to future voters who must resist attempts to politicize the courts," said Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights group. "If an embattled judiciary were to lose its ability to protect our laws and constitution with impartiality, that would be a tragic loss."
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, depicted the judges' ouster, coupled with the GOP gains in Congress, as a "historic and stunning" victory for foes of gay marriage.
The Iowa result, he said, "sends a powerful message to any judge who thinks they can impose gay marriage by judicial fiat against the wishes of the people."
Evan Wolfson, a gay-rights lawyer who heads the national group Freedom to Marry, said the judicial recall was intended as "an intimidating, thuggish message" to other courts.
"If I had just mugged a judge, I wouldn't be running around bragging about it," he said.
The results set the stage for several likely state battles over same-sex marriage next year.
Gay-rights groups said the election of governors in Rhode Island and Maryland who support same-sex marriage created a chance for breakthroughs in those states. In New York, where a gay marriage bill was defeated in 2009, the picture was clouded by uncertainty over control of the state Senate, but Democratic Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo is a firm supporter of gay marriage.
Foes of gay marriage said Republican legislative gains could benefit their cause in Minnesota, where conservatives would like to put a gay-marriage ban on the ballot, and in New Hampshire, where some lawmakers would like to repeal the 2009 law legalizing gay marriage.
"The backers of gay marriage are fond of telling the lie that gay marriage is inevitable in this country," Brown said. "What we have shown in this election is that support for gay marriage is a career-ending position for judges and legislators."
However, Brown's organization failed in its bid to defeat New Hampshire's incumbent Democratic Gov. John Lynch despite running ads critical of his decision to sign the gay-marriage bill.
Some gay activists elsewhere had cause for celebration. David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., was elected as the fourth openly gay member of the U.S. House, joining fellow Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Jared Polis of Colorado, who each won re-election.
Other openly gay winners included Jim Gray as mayor of Lexington, Ky.; Nickie Antonio to the Ohio House, who became the state's first openly gay legislator; and Marcus Brandon, an African-American, to the North Carolina House.
In California's Alameda County, Victoria Kolakowski was elected a Superior Court judge; the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund said she is the first openly transgender trial court judge in America.
"There is no sugar-coating the loss of so many of our straight allies in Congress," said Victory Fund president Chuck Wolfe. "But we can be proud that our community continues to expand its voice at all levels of government in America."