Dem Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly Endorse Gay Marriage: Who's Left, and What Are They Waiting For?


Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) ‘evolved’ on Friday, making them the latest Democratic senators to publicly endorse same-sex marriage. Just four Democratic senators have yet to do so.

Donnelly, who voted to repeal ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell,’ took to Facebook to announce his transition:

“I oppose amending either Indiana’s or our nation’s constitution to enshrine in those documents as ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ instead of a ‘we.’ With the recent Supreme Court arguments and accompanying public discussion of same-sex marriage, I have been thinking about my past positions and votes. In doing so, I have concluded that the right thing to do is to support marriage equality for all.”

Heitkamp released a similar statement, noting,

“In speaking with North Dakotans from every corner of our great state, and much personal reflection, I have concluded the federal government should no longer discriminate against people who want to make lifelong, loving commitments to each other or interfere in personal, private and intimate relationships. I view the ability of anyone to marry as a logical extension of this belief.”

The senators, both of whom hail from traditionally red states (North Dakota voted 58.7% in favor of Mitt Romney, while Indiana voted 54.3%), join a growing number of politicians frantically scrambling to either evolve or fully support marriage equality — a movement that’s surprised politicians, pundits, analysts and activists alike in its staggering momentum. They join political heavyweights from both sides of the spectrum such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Laura Bush and Jon Huntsman. 

Heitkamp and Donnelly follow at the heels of senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla) — all three men announced their support this month. Republican Senators Rob Portman (Ohio) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) have also publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, despite their less-than supportive party; Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) is ‘evolving.’

It’s hardly surprising. According to a March Washington Post-ABC poll, 58% support same-sex marriage, compared to just 27% in 1996. At present, 65% of Democrats are in favor, compared to 22% of Republicans.

In an extraordinary cover story for TIME, entitled “Gay Marriage Already Won,” David von Drehle writes, “In recent days, weeks and months, the verdict on same-sex marriage has been rendered by rapidly shifting public opinion and by the spectacle of swing-vote politicians scrambling to keep up with it. With stunning speed, a concept dismissed even by most gay-rights leaders just 20 years ago is now embraced by half or more of all Americans, with support among young voters running as high as 4 to 1.”

He continues to note that “exit polls in November showed that 83% of voters believe that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide in the next five to 10 years.”

At the time of writing, only four Democratic senators remain officially opposed: Mark Pryor (Ariz.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mary Landrieu (La.), and Tim Johnson (S.D.). Pryor and Landrieu are up for re-election in 2014. Johnson is retiring at the end of his term. 

While they all hail from deeply red states, the political stakes for marriage equality have shifted from “Is this politically convenient?” (remember then-Senate hopeful Barack Obama’s response to a 1996 questionnaire?) to, “Is it politically destructive not to?” 

Polls are shifting at a rapid rate, with the coveted millennial voter showing less and less patience for politicians supporting what they frequently consider to be an arcane view. History tends to look more favorably on those supporting an advancement of civil rights, and less so on those opposed.

As von Drehle writes, “According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 7 American adults say their initial opposition to same-sex marriage has turned in support.” It's now time for their representatives to follow suit.