The Washington Post

The 7 Democratic Senate holdouts on gay marriage — and how likely they are to reverse course

The last ten days have seen a cavalcade of Democratic Senators announcing their support of gay marriage -- with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper the latest to "evolve" on the issue.  (Sen. Mark Kirk became the second Republican to come out in support of gay marriage today.)

Activists rally in support of same-sex marriage. Getty Images.

And yet, there are still seven Democrats in the Senate who have yet to come out in support of gay marriage despite the momentum both within the chamber and the public more broadly in that direction.

Their reasons are some combination of personal beliefs, geography and a large helping of political considerations. As they become a smaller and smaller group, however, the pressures on them from both inside and outside the Senate will grow. ( has issued online petitions designed to pressure hold out Senators.)

Let's examine the seven remaining holdouts -- ranked in order from most likely to announce support for gay marriage in the near term to the least likely.

1. Tim Johnson (S.D.): Johnson's past unwillingness to back gay marriage makes sense given that he represents a culturally conservative state where President Obama won just 40 percent of the vote. But, Johnson's retirement announcement last week means that he is now free of those sorts of political concerns that others on this list have to deal with.  Of course, his son is mentioned as a possible candidate and Johnson may not want to complicate that bid by making a public statement reversing course on gay marriage.

2. Bill Nelson (Fla.): Of the seven remaining Democratic holdouts on gay marriage, Nelson represents the state most friendly to his party -- with President Obama having won it in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.  In the immediate aftermath of Obama's announcement last May that he was switching to support gay marriage, Nelson told the Miami Herald: “I believe marriage should be left to the states, and Florida voted on same-sex marriage in 2008." (Florida voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage with more than 61 percent in 2008.)  With public sentiment changing fast on the issue, however, it could well give Nelson a justification to switch positions.  He would also have a bit of cross-party cover on the issue since Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is one of a handful of Republicans who has said she supports gay marriage.

3. Heidi Heitkamp: While it's easy to see either/both Nelson and Johnson switching to support gay marriage, the next five Senators on this list, beginning with Heitkamp, seem less likely to follow the wave of public opinion soon-ish. That's due in large part to political considerations as each of the quartet represents a conservative state where a potential Republican opponent could use the gay marriage switch as a way to tie the incumbent to President Obama and the national Democratic party.  "Senator Heitkamp believes this should be decided on a state-by-state basis," said communications director Whitney Phillips when asked about the Senator's approach to the issue. (That "leave it up to the states" position is one that is shared by the likes of GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul by the way.)  During her 2012 campaign, Heitkamp called the issue of gay marriage a "distraction", adding: "I don't think [President Obama] is going to get a Congress that is going to agree with him and so here we go again talking about things that aren't about jobs and improving the economy and getting this country moving." If Heitkamp wants to "evolve" on the issue, now is the time do to it since she won't have to stand for re-election until 2018.

4. Mary Landrieu (La.): Landrieu's approach on gay marriage is a classic situation of personal beliefs running into political realities. She told the Times Picayune late last month that that her own personal views on gay marriage have evolved -- there's that word again -- but that she would respect the views of her constituents on the matter. And, nearly eight in ten Louisiana voters supported defining marriage between a man and a woman in 2004. (It's not clear how much those views have changed -- or not -- over the past 9 years.)  Landrieu is a top target for Republicans in 2014 -- she has never won re-election to the Senate with more than 52 percent -- and doesn't want to give conservatives any more political ammunition against her than they already have. And yet, it's clear that personally her opposition to gay marriage has softened considerably.

5. Joe Donnelly (Ind.): Donnelly is in a very similar situation to Heitkamp -- elected in 2012 in a conservative-leaning state and wary of the political fallout of switching sides in the gay marriage debate. In the wake of President Obama's decision in 2012 to come out in support of gay marriage, Donnelly reiterated that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Again, like Heitkamp, if Donnelly wanted to switch on the issue now is the time to do it since he won't stand for a second term until 2018.

6. Joe Manchin (W. Va.): Manchin, a former governor, is popular enough in this Republican-leaning state (at least at the federal level) that he could weather reversing course on gay marriage. But, at least at the moment, he seems to have no interest in doing so.  "Senator Manchin believes that a marriage is a union between one man and one woman," Manchin spokeswoman Katie Longo told WaPo's Aaron Blake. "His beliefs are guided by his faith, and he supports the Defense of Marriage Act."  Manchin seems committed to preserving his status as principled centrist-in-chief of the Senate -- taking that role from retired Senator Joe Lieberman -- and, given that, he may not be coming out in support of gay marriage any time soon.

7. Mark Pryor (Ark.): There's a whole lot of reasons to think that Pryor will be the last Democratic holdout on supporting gay marriage. 1. He represents a state in the heart of the Bible Belt. 2. He represents a state that not only passed a ban on same sex marriage in 2004 but whose state legislature affirmed the state's opposition to it last week. 3. Pryor is up for re-election to a third term in 2014 in a state where President Obama won just 37 percent of the vote. 4. Pryor's office had made clear that he has "a moral belief that marriage is between a man and a woman." Given all that, it's hard to see Pryor doing anything on the issue before the end of 2014 -- assuming he is still in the Senate.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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