Vulnerable Democratic senators balk at Obama's gay marriage endorsement

Senate Democrats facing difficult reelections are breaking with President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, a sign the issue is politically dangerous in battleground states.

Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the two most vulnerable Democratic senators, have declined to endorse Obama’s call for the legalization of gay marriage.

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Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), Democrats who have easier races but in states that could become more competitive by November, have also backed away from Obama’s stance.

They all represent states with constitutional amendments or laws banning same-sex marriage.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted Thursday the Democratic Party would adopt a pro-gay marriage plank in its platform. While that may happen when delegates to the Democratic National Convention meet September in Charlotte, N.C., the party remains divided.

“Jon believes in civil unions for committed same-sex couples but in Montana a marriage is defined as between a man and a woman,” said Andrea Helling, Tester’s spokeswoman.

Montana is one of 30 states with constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman, according to Human Rights Campaign, a group that promotes gay rights.


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James Lopach, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said Tester is smart to separate himself from Obama on gay marriage.

“It comes down to independents, who make it somewhat of a swing state. Generally the independent vote in Montana is more conservative and Republican-oriented than Democrat-oriented,” he said.

“[Rep.] Denny Rehberg’s strategy is to tightly link Tester and Obama,” he added, in reference to Tester’s opponent.

Lobach said it would be a “political mistake” for Tester to match Obama’s stance on gay marriage.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been one of Obama’s closest allies in the Senate, has also kept her distance.

Her spokesman declined to endorse the president’s position. In an email to the Springfield News-Leader, John LaBombard said, “Claire recognizes this is a very personal issue for many Missourians” and said she thinks states should “take the lead in determining marriage equality.”

“The state of Missouri’s position on this issue has been clearly established since 2004 and nothing about today’s announcement changes that,” he added.

Missouri has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Nelson said the federal government should not interfere with state laws.

“I have a record fighting against discrimination and standing up for people’s civil rights based on their sexual orientation.  I believe marriage should be left to the states, and Florida voted on same-sex marriage in 2008,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Florida passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Manchin and Casey, who represent states with laws banning gay marriage, have also split with Obama.

“His position hasn’t changed; he believes marriage is between one man and one woman,” said Manchin spokeswoman Marni Goldberg.

April Mellody, a spokeswoman for Casey, said her boss “supports civil unions, strongly opposes discrimination and has condemned discriminatory measures such as a federal constitutional amendment.”

She said Casey does not agree with the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage but has taken steps to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“He has co-sponsored measures such as the Employee Non-Discrimination Act and introduced legislation to stop bullying in schools,” she said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, said gay rights advocates would continue lobbying members of Congress to bring them closer to Obama on the issue.

“They don’t appear to be marriage equality supporters and it’s our jobs as advocates to continue to educate them about our families as we did the president and we hope one day they would come around to a position of support but it sounds like they’re not there,” he said.

The exception is Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) who faces a stiff challenge in Ohio, where outside groups have spent more than $5 million on ads to defeat him.

Brown issued a strong statement siding with Obama, even though his home state has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“What has made America special throughout our history is the constant effort to secure rights for all our citizens,” he said. “Our LGBT friends, co-workers and neighbors should have the same rights enjoyed by all Americans.”

Brown was one of a handful of House members who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Obama’s administration has found that law unconstitutional and chosen not to enforce it.

Advocates have made progress recently toward overturning Ohio’s ban. Last month, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, certified petition language for an amendment that would define marriage as a union of two consenting adults, regardless of gender. It could come up for a vote next year.

Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican locked in a tight race for re-election in Massachusetts issued a cautious statement responding to Obama.

"Here in Massachusetts, gay marriage has been settled law for nearly a decade, and Senator Brown continues to believe that states should be able to decide this issue,” said Brown spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel. “Regardless of how states choose to define marriage, Senator Brown believes all people should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Massachusetts is one of six states that issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College, said Brown must be careful not to alienate conservative voters in the Republican base or independents and Democrats who might be inclined to vote for him.

“He’s trying to finesse an issue that’s controversial nationwide but not very controversial in Massachusetts,” he said.

Ubertaccio said there is a small group of very conservative voters in Massachusetts who are nevertheless important to Brown’s reelection calculus.

“He doesn’t want to lose those voters,” he said. “Independents and democrats are supportive of same sex marriage. That statement is indicative of the fact that he needs those voters if he wants to win.”