President Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage puts Timothy M. Kaine — a close friend and political ally — in a delicate position as he runs in a marquee Senate race in a swing state.
Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is locked in a heated race to replace retiring Sen. James Webb (D), most likely against fellow former Virginia governor George Allen.
In a state that is split on the subject — and could be key to Obama’s reelection hopes — Kaine has struck something of a middle ground on gay marriage. Like Obama, Kaine opposes the Defense of Marriage Act and supported repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
But while Obama made history Wednesday by saying “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Kaine hasn’t gone that far.
Meeting with reporters the day before Obama’s comments, Kaine said he believed in “relationship equality” but repeatedly declined to say specifically whether gay couples should be able to get married.
“I believe in the legal equality of relationships,” Kaine said Tuesday. “The debate about, you know, is it marriage? Is it civil union? Is it domestic partnership? I just kind of let that one go and say should committed couples be treated the same by law, and I think the answer is yes.”
As governor, Kaine lobbied against the amendment to Virginia’s constitution banning same-sex marriage that passed in 2006. Kaine said the amendment was overly broad and could deprive same-sex couples of some legal rights to which they were entitled, although he also said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“While he does not believe government should tell faith congregations what unions to recognize for religious purposes, he does believe that all committed couples, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the same legal rights and responsibilities,” Kaine campaign spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said Thursday.
Even if their positions on same-sex marriage are slightly different, Kaine and Obama are widely seen to have intertwined political fates in November.
“I don’t think it’s to Tim Kaine’s benefit at all for him to get into a nuanced discussion about gay marriage,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
On one hand, Kidd said there was a case to be made that Obama’s comments could help him win Virginia for a second election.
“What he really needs to have any chance of taking Virginia again in November is for young voters to turn out for him the way they did in ’08,” Kidd said. “Gay marriage is really popular among young voters.”
Yet the shift also carries risks, in that it could motivate evangelicals who might otherwise be tepid about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. “If the evangelical voters turn up to vote for Mitt Romney, then they’ll vote for George Allen,” Kidd said.
Allen, for his part, is firmly against same-sex marriage. While in the Senate in 2005, he co-sponsored a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and he backs the Defense of Marriage Act. “George Allen believes that marriage should be between one man and one woman,” said Allen spokeswoman Katie Wright.
Before this week, neither Kaine nor Allen had spent much time on the campaign trail discussing same-sex marriage. Nor did voters appear to be giving the subject much thought.
In a Washington Post poll of Virginians released this week, 30 percent of respondents said same-sex marriage would be “extremely” or “very” important to their vote in the Senate race, while 68 percent said it would be “somewhat” or “not at all” important. Overall, gay marriage ranked last in importance among the 10 policy issues that were included in the survey.
But the poll was conducted April 28 to May 2, before Obama put the subject on front pages and network newscasts across America.
In a May 2011 Post poll of Virginians, 47 percent of adults thought same-sex marriage should be legal while 43 percent did not. A larger number — 55 percent — said they believed gay couples should be allowed to adopt children.
The 2006 amendment passed with 57 percent support, but Kaine said this week he believed that if the vote were held again now, the result would be much closer.