Why even red-state Democrats are jumping on the gay marriage bandwagon

Once politically toxic, marriage equality is suddenly gaining support in some unlikely places

Kay Hagan becomes the latest red-state Democrat to support gay marriage.
(Image credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong)

On Wednesday, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina added her name to the growing ranks of lawmakers who have publicly "evolved" on marriage equality, just as the Supreme Court weighs two potentially historic cases on the issue.

While Hagan isn't the only Democrat who has rushed to join the chorus in favor of same-sex marriage, her announcement is notable because it reflects the rapidly shifting political calculus on the issue. Democrats in battleground states like North Carolina once hedged on the question to maintain broader appeal, but the changing times have helped them to change their minds as well.

Certainly, the high-profile Supreme Court cases are providing a good news peg for lawmakers to announce their positions, but the prospect of a landmark ruling isn't the main reason Democrats are hopping on the bandwagon. Rather, lawmakers are likely reacting to a wave of polling data showing increased support for gay marriage, and calculating that they can now support it without losing their jobs. Indeed, at this stage, opposing gay marriage could be a major vulnerability in a Democratic primary.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

For Hagan, that meant embracing gay marriage despite a looming 2014 re-election contest that was already set to be one of the most competitive in the nation. Last year, North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. Hagan opposed that amendment, but mainly for economic reasons.

In unequivocally backing same-sex marriage now, Hagan put herself at odds with the 60 percent of North Carolinians who supported that gay marriage ban, called Amendment One.

"After much thought and prayer, I have come to my own personal conclusion that we shouldn’t tell people who they can love or who they can marry," Hagan said in a statement posted to her Facebook page. "I think as a civil institution, this issue’s time has come and we need to move forward."

A host of politicians have come out in favor of marriage equality over the past few weeks, from both Bill and Hillary Clinton, to Republican Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who said having a gay son convinced him to switch sides. The new converts include a handful of Democratic senators whose support bucks their states' traditional views on the issue, such as Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Mark Begich (Ark.), Mark Warner (Va.), and now Hagan.

Just last year, McCaskill and Tester refused to say whether they agreed with President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage. While it's understandable why they'd hold off announcing their support until after the elections — each faced daunting re-election bids — their reversals were likely made with an eye on future elections as well.

National public opinion polls have found support for gay marriage steadily rising for years. A Pew survey released last week, for instance, found that the shift over the past decade was "among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period."

More importantly, attitudes at the state level are changing just as quickly. According to projections from the New York Times' numbers whiz Nate Silver, majorities of voters in all but 19 states will back gay marriage in 2016, with another handful of states essentially split down the middle. By 2020, he estimates all but seven states will be on board. Notably, those projections see Montana, Alaska, and Virginia — all places where Democratic senators have just endorsed marriage equality — flipping to support same-sex marriage by the next presidential election.

"Eight years ago, these were the exact places where the Democratic Party was thought to be uncompetitive because of suspicions that it was really, secretly okay with gay marriage," says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. "The position was so unpopular that even insufficient opposition was seen as a huge liability. Today, full-blown support barely raises an eyebrow."

In particular, Klein notes how Montana Democrats credited their success in the mid-2000s to their ability to defuse social issues. That won't be the case when Tester runs for re-election.

There may also a financial angle at play, says the Washington Post's Rachel Weiner. Pro-gay marriage donors gave heavily to President Obama's re-election effort after he announced his evolution on the issue, while at the same time threatening to withhold money from socially conservative Democrats. For vulnerable lawmakers, the prospect of a funding influx could make publicly endorsing gay marriage a lot easier.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us