The remarkable political transparency of the Senate’s changing attitudes on gay marriage

April 9, 2013

Three weeks and one day ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she now believed gays and lesbians had the right to marry.

Since Clinton reversed course 14 Senators -- 13 Democrats and 1 Republican -- have followed suit. The 14 switches over 22 days amounts to a Senator changing position on same sex marriage on average every day and a half. In just two days last month -- March 25 and 26 -- six Democratic Senators changed their position to support gay marriage. (This timeline -- created by Yahoo's Chris Wilson -- is a terrific way to chart who said what when on gay marriage.)

In each and every case, the switching Senator cited an evolution in how they viewed the issue -- casting their decision (and its timing) as the result of a long internal debate regarding the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

"After lengthy consideration, my views have evolved sufficiently to support marriage equality legislation," said South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D); “In speaking with North Dakotans from every corner of our great state, and much personal reflection, I have concluded the federal government should no longer discriminate against people who want to make lifelong, loving commitments to each other," said North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D); "I’m proud to support marriage equality because no one should be able to tell a Montanan or any American who they can love and who they can marry," said Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D).

You get the point.

There are two theories to explain the remarkable -- and remarkably rapid -- trend toward supporting gay marriage among Senate Democrats.

The first is to take them at their word -- that after much personal reflection and conversations with their constituents they all individually decided some time in the last three weeks that now was the time to go public with their change of heart. Of course, that would be a pretty amazing coincidence.

The second is that these Senators have long privately supported gay marriage but have resisted going public until the last three weeks for fear of the political consequences.

Consider that of the 13 Democrats who have reversed course since Clinton's announcement, eight represent states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. (The lone Republican to switch his position -- Illinois' Mark Kirk -- represents a state President Obama won overwhelmingly in 2012.)

Of that same group of 13 Democrats, nine were elected or re-elected in 2012, meaning that they won't stand for re-election until 2018. Two others -- Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota -- are retiring rather than seeking re-election in 2014.

That leaves only Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina who have switched in the past three weeks on gay marriage but are not either a) retiring or b) up for re-election in six years time. (Both Begich and Hagan are running for re-election in 2014.)

It seems pretty clear to us based on the evidence above that these series of changes of hearts have, at their core, political calculation. That, of course, is no crime: Politics tends to be a reactive game with elected officials closely monitoring public opinion before deciding when to leap (or not leap).

But, attempts to cast these evolutions as purely personal/policy decisions without a hint of politics is laughable -- unless you believe that remarkable coincidences happen in politics. Which, of course, they don't.

Gun-control advocates make major push: President Obama delivered his most forceful call yet for Congress to take action on gun control, declaring during a Monday speech in Connecticut, “We’ve got to expect more from Congress.”

The push continues today, when family members of victims in the mass shooting in Newtown last year plan to lobby lawmakers. The relatives flew with Obama to Washington aboard Air Force One on Monday. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver remarks about reducing gun violence this afternoon. The push comes at a critical time in the congressional debate over guns, as lawmakers are still working to strike a bipartisan agreement to expand background checks.

EMILY's List puts six more House members "On Notice": The pro abortion  rights group EMILY's List added six more House members to a list of potential targets for the cycle: Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), John Kline (R-Minn.), Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), and David Valadao (R-Calif.). The group says the members -- whose records the organization doesn't like -- all serve in districts where "Democratic female talent" is "waiting in the wings."

Fixbits:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky,) plans to join a GOP filibuster of gun control legislation. He also put up a good first quarter fundraising number, hauling in $1.8 million and banking an imposing $8.6 million.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) criticized the threat of filibuster against gun control legislation.

It's Election Day in Illinois's 2nd District, where Democratic nominee Robin Kelly is expected to cruise to victory.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) is officially running for governor.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) struggled to distinguish themselves from one another in their second Senate debate.

Retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) became the latest upper chamber Democrat to back gay marriage.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) shelved his controversial plan to eliminate the state's income tax. But he called for lawmakers to agree to their own proposal that would eliminate the tax.

The gun control group New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) started is launching a new system to grade lawmakers on where they stand on gun control. The group is also running 60-second ads featuring a man whose son was killed in the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., school late last year.

An outside group named One New Jersey is launching a $500,000 cable ad buy against Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Obama and others mourned the death of Margaret Thatcher.

The Alaska GOP headquarters was under lockdown on Monday.

Must-reads: 

"Senate candidate seeks ruling on contributions by gay couples" -- Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times

"Expanded immigration would reduce the federal deficit, some conservatives say" -- Jim Tankersley. Washington Post

"Sen. Max Baucus moves to reshape tax code" -- Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | April 8, 2013