Why Are All These Democrats Suddenly Supporting Gay Marriage?

Elahe Izadi

Supporting same-sex marriage has entered “Oh, me too, me too!” territory. Over the past week, prominent Democrats have embraced same-sex marriage. Most say that it’s a moral decision they made after their views have “evolved,” but there are also political — and financial — benefits to such an evolution.

The decision by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to come out in favor of gay marriage shocked many, but Democrats coming out in favor of gay marriage since then is news mostly because it has come in a cluster. Sen. Mark Warner of virginia admitted that his views “evolved” Monday; Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri came out in favor of same-sex marriage over the weekend via Tumblr; Sen. Jon Tester of Montana did so Tuesday on Facebook. It’s very likely that every Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 will be in favor of gay marriage.

Supporting same-sex marriage will help their campaigns' coffers; red-state Democrats could get financial help nationwide to help fight potential blowback in their conservative states (McCaskill and Tester face reelection in 2018, while Warner and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another Democrat who recently came out in support of same-sex marriage, are up again in 2014). Over the past decade, gay-rights advocates and groups have proved themselves to be major players in fundraising cycles, whether it’s state races in New York or the flood of financial support for President Obama after he reversed his position.

“The gay and lesbian community is very savvy about this,” says Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “They know how to punish their nemeses but probably more importantly, they know how to reward their friends.”

Public opinion is on their side, too: 58 percent of Americans support gay marriage, according to a NBC News/Washington Post poll  — so Republicans like Portman could plausibly benefit financially from coming out in favor of same-sex marriage. Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz stresses his organization is nonpartisan by design, and he points to the track record of support that Republicans have received from the gay community, such as in New York.

“Good things come to those who do the right thing. That applies equally, not just to Democrats,” Sainz says. “There was a time when being pro-gay-marriage equality was just the moral thing to do. The measure of our success is it’s still the moral thing to do, but now it’s also the politically advantageous thing to do as well.”

But if lawmakers want to capitalize on that political advantage, they better act fast, especially for Democrats since there is broad consensus in their party on the issue. If the window for lawmakers to get on the side of gay rights hasn’t closed already, it’s rapidly getting there.

“If you do it later, you run the risk of being perceived as jumping onto the political bandwagon only for electoral gains,” Manley says. “It’s all about getting ahead of the issue and getting to where the American people are and dealing with it now, rather than closer to an election.”

Still, some Democrats are holding back. Nine Senate Democrats, including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have yet to endorse same-sex marriage. He is also up in 2014. 

Correction: The original version of this story stated Tester and McCaskill were up for re-election in 2016. This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Kay Hagan has since come out in favor of same-sex marriage.