Opponents of same-sex marriage are rallying conservative supporters with attacks on gay marriage this election season, particularly in two north East Valley legislative districts.
Some moderate politicians say the rhetoric has created a hostile environment, and one gay candidate said that has led to threats against him.
District 7 House candidate Thom Von Hapsburg said he has been followed while driving, had campaign signs cut down and had animal waste thrown at his house several times a week. These activities have become more common, Von Hapsburg said, as political rivals increase their attacks on gay marriage and on his politics.
He said opponent David Burnell Smith has encouraged "hate mongering" with a mailer that states Von Hapsburg supports gay marriage and is "dangerously liberal."
"He's sending out inaccurate information," said Von Hapsburg, who is openly gay. He said he opposes same-sex marriage. "It just fuels these right-wingers even more."
Smith said Von Hapsburg is misleading voters with a mailer that touts family values. Smith said he doesn't recall Von Hapsburg opposing gay marriage. "I still believe that he supports the gay agenda," Smith said. "I'd like to see a vote if he got in the Legislature. I don't believe him."
Smith said he condemns the threats against Von Hapsburg.
The two are running in District 7, which includes northwest Scottsdale, Cave Creek, Carefree and northeast Phoenix.
Smith and other supporters of traditional marriage said their comments are intended to show Republican voters they are social conservatives who support family values and a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.
Still, several political observers said they've never seen such vitriol regarding sexual orientation.
"I know there are certain issues that are hot-button issues in every election cycle, but somehow the viciousness of this has gone way over anything I've seen in the past," said Mike Triggs, former executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party and a Scottsdale Republican activist. Triggs is gay.
Gay marriage also has sparked heated moments in District 8, where Rep. Colette Rosati earlier this month raised questions about her opponents' family and marital status. She referred to the gay community as the "dark side" in an e-mail designed to drum up support among her volunteers.
Rosati said the issue is being driven by "activist judges" who she feels are improperly making legislative decisions on gay marriage.
"So what's happened is that here at the state level, and even at the federal level, we've got to hold the line against these activist judges who continue to legislate from the bench," Rosati said.
Rosati acknowledged that District 8 — encompassing Scottsdale, Fountain Hills and Rio Verde — is more socially liberal than some other Republican-dominated districts. But the lawmaker said she is prepared to take criticism for her views on supporting traditional marriage, and that gay candidates such as Von Hapsburg should be as open about their views.
"I'm standing up for what I believe in," she said. "If you are homosexual, then shout it to the world, if you think that is the best thing going."
Von Hapsburg does not make his sexual orientation a significant part of his campaign, which has triggered criticism from Len Munsil, executive director of the Center for Arizona Policy.
Munsil said that Von Hapsburg misleads voters in a mailer by showing a picture of himself with a woman, which could lead people to think Von Hapsburg is married or interested in women.
"If he has a partner, why not depict himself with his partner?" Munsil asked.
Munsil also questioned why Von Hapsburg is talking about threats and questioned whether they are "a cheap ploy to try to get sympathy."
"I've had my life threatened," Munsil said. "I've been called every name in the book, and I don't go around complaining to the newspaper."
Rep. Michele Reagan, also a District 8 candidate, worries about the damage within the GOP when candidates spar over gay rights and sexual orientation.
"The Republican Party is big enough for people if they are straight, gay, married or whatever," she said.
Reagan said she is aware of alleged acts of discrimination against Von Hapsburg two years ago, but that the political rhetoric this election cycle has been even more intense.
"I think the hatred is more out in the open," Reagan said.