Same Sex Marriage Exposes Divisions Within the Democratic Party


As the Supreme Court hears arguments this week on cases regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, the national attention has exposed divisions with the Democratic Party on the issue of same sex marriage.

Several Democratic senators in red and battleground states still oppose same sex marriage, while others have publicly changed their stance to supporting it over the last few days. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mon.), both of whom won re-election last year and won’t be up again until 2018, have now come out in support of same sex marriage. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who announced he won’t seek re-election next year, has also come out in support of it. Senators Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), both of whom are up for re-election next year, have recently come out in favor of same sex marriage despite the political risks it may carry in their states.

But the Huffington Post has recently highlighted 10 Democratic Senators who still oppose same sex marriage. They include Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Hagan, Landrieu, and Pryor are all up for re-election next year, while Johnson recently announced he won’t be seeking another term.

Also, a rally staged by the National Organization for Marriage revealed there are key constituencies of the Democratic Party that remain devoted to the traditional definition of marriage, including African-Americans and Latinos, both of whom broke for Obama in 2012 93%-6% and 71%-27%, respectively.

Even in my home state of Illinois, legislation to legalize same sex marriage has stalled in the state legislature, despite the fact that Democrats hold veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers. Awaiting a vote in the House, Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) stated last week that the same sex marriage bill is "12 votes short of passage."

Sixty votes are needed to pass a measure through the House, and Democrats hold a supermajority of 71-47. Reports from within the Springfield say that African-American pastors in Chicago are having a powerful impact on African-American Democrats that attend their churches and have faith-based constituencies. Several Chicago lawmakers are now firm "nays" and downstate Democrats from traditional districts are also solid "nays."

That would seem to mirror the 70% of African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage in California.

Sources within the Illinois Democratic Party have quietly told me that behind closed doors, opponents of same sex marriage who wish to change their stance have been told to do what President Obama did when he flip-flopped his stance from supporting it in 1996 to opposing it in 2008 to supporting it again in 2012, which is to publicly claim they have "evolved" their position, rather than "reversed" or "switched" it.

The bigger point is simple: While many in the media have shed light on and scrutinized every single division within the Republican Party over the last few months, they've largely ignored the divisions within the Democratic Party on several key issues, including same sex marriage.

On domestic energy development, 17 Democratic senators helped approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline last week when it was added as an amendment to the Senate’s first budget in four years, despite staunch opposition from their environmentalist colleagues. That finally gave the project that would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries a 62-seat filibuster proof majority in the Senate.

On gun control, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had to drop the assault weapons ban from the Senate’s legislative agenda when it became clear he didn't have enough votes to pass it within the 55-45 Democratic majority body, much to the chagrin of the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

While these divisions may not be highlighted by the media as much as the ones within the GOP, they certainly exist on both sides of the aisle.