At-Risk Democratic Senators Shy Away From Marriage Equality

Even as some political figures are more forthcoming with their support for marriage equality, lawmakers facing tough reelections avoid weighing in.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan doesn’t want to talk about gay marriage. Daily Free Press, Zach Frailey / AP

WASHINGTON — One week after Republican Sen. Rob Portman declared his support for marriage equality, some Democratic senators whose seats might be vulnerable in 2014 are hesitant to do the same — or even talk about the issue at all.

Sens. Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich and Mark Pryor, all moderate Democrats who will face fierce reelection battles during the midterm election cycle, either would not state their position on marriage, or declined to comment via their office.

“I am really concerned right now about the budget, about jobs in my state,” Hagan, of North Carolina, responded when asked about her stance on marriage equality. Ironically, last year Hagan went on record opposing a same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina, saying it would have “far-reaching negative consequences.”

Landrieu was more forthcoming — but said she would need to “think really carefully” about the issue moving forward.

“I feel very strongly that people should be allowed to love who they love, but unfortunately my state has a very strong ban against gay marriage constitutionally, so I’m going to have to think really carefully and listen to the voters of my state about that issue,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, who hails from Louisiana. “But it’s very tough because I think most people believe that people should love who they love.”

The offices of Begich and Pryor declined to comment for this story.

The issue of same-sex marriage has taken on particular prominence as the Supreme Court considers whether the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment are constitutional, and as political figures such as Portman and, early this week, Hillary Clinton, have been emboldened to declare their support for same-sex marriage.

But the reluctance among at-risk Democratic senators to broach the issue indicates that the political fight over this issue is far from over, and lawmakers won’t necessarily rush to add their voices to those backing marriage rights for the LGBT community.

Indeed, the fact that Democrats like Hagan who have previously staked out positions opposing restrictions on marriage rights are unwilling to talk about the issue makes clear that some politicians remain uncomfortable with the issue, regardless of their position.

Hagan, Landrieu, Pryor and Begich did not sign on to an amicus brief opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, filed on behalf of Democratic lawmakers to the Supreme Court as it considers the act.

Still, in the past all four lawmakers have taken public positions on marriage equality.

In 2006, as the Senate considered a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Pryor and Landrieu both affirmed marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but opposed the amendment. Pryor said bluntly in a statement released at the time, “I oppose gay marriage.” Both said it should be an issue decided by the states.

As of 2008, Begich supported benefits for gay couples and opposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, according to a profile of the senator in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, other Democrats are taking a more aggressive position. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democratic campaign arm, has set up a new web page asking voters to sign a petition in support of repeal of DOMA.

“We must show that the American people stand behind the President and support extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans,” the petition says. “Now is the time to show your support for marriage equality.”

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