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Has The Supreme Court Made Marriage an Issue in the Midterm Election?

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Top, from left: Mary Landrieu, Sean Reyes, and Mark Warner; bottom, from left: Scott Walker, Mark Pryor, and Ed Gillespie


The Supreme Court’s Monday decision not to hear any of several appeals of pro–marriage equality rulings — and therefore let those decisions stand — could have an impact on several races in November’s election, including some competitive U.S. Senate contests.

“By punting on marriage, the Supreme Court keeps the issue in the political sphere and amplifies the conversation just before the midterms,” political strategist Brian Ellner, who was active in the successful campaign for marriage equality in New York State, told Bloomberg News Monday.

Bloomberg reporters Jonathan Allen and Annie Linskey speculate that the issue could hurt vulnerable Democrats in red states, but some other political observers say it will be more of a problem for Republicans, as public opinion has shifted in support of marriage equality.

“Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas both oppose gay marriage, but voters in their socially conservative home states might be convinced to vote Republican in hopes of establishing a GOP majority that would block the expansion of gay rights through legislation or the judiciary,” Allen and Linskey report.

Landrieu said last year that she personally supports an individual’s right to marry a same-sex partner, but that she was sworn to uphold Louisiana’s state constitutional amendment banning such unions. It’s the only such amendment that’s been upheld by a federal court in the past year, breaking a long string of marriage equality victories since the summer of 2013. Pryor has been more staunch in his opposition to equal marriage rights. “My position on that specifically is well-documented,” Pryor said recently. “That was a ballot initiative here in Arkansas ... I voted for the amendment to ban gay marriage in Arkansas.” Both Landrieu and Pryor are in tight races with Republican challengers.

Republicans, however, don’t seem to want to discuss the issue; the chance to vote for such ballot initiatives brought conservative voters to the polls 10 years ago, but now opposition to marriage rights is more a political liability than an advantage in many regions of the country.

“This was something the party largely hoped to avoid talking about and that's why they've been silent,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. “Some of these Republicans in these purple states are finding themselves in a bind. In some cases it could put some Democrats on their heels but if you look at the totality of it, this is not a great situation for Republicans.”

Landrieu’s opponent, Bill Cassidy, made no statement on Monday’s decision, nor did Pryor’s challenger, Tom Cotton, The Hill reports. Also silent on it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a tight race for reelection.

Neither Louisiana nor Arkansas is affected by the court’s decision, but in the states that are, Republican Senate candidates are trying to avoid emphasizing the issue. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman who is challenging Democratic incumbent Mark Warner in Virginia, told a television reporter on Monday that the court’s action is “a decision with considerable impact” and that he thinks states, not the federal government, should regulate marriage. Gillespie’s “reticence,” The Hill notes, contrasted sharply with Warner’s “celebration of the ruling.”

Warner issued a statement saying, “Allowing people to marry who they love is the fundamentally right thing to do, and it strengthens our families and communities. This is a remarkable and memorable day in Virginia’s march toward equality.”

Democratic senator Mark Udall of Colorado also issued a statement praising the decision, while his opponent, Cory Gardner, remained silent, The Hill reports. The publication notes that making marriage equality an issue may hurt Democratic senators seeking reelection in conservative states, such as Landrieu, Pryor, Alaska’s Mark Begich, and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, in addition to McConnell challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, but their opponents don’t seem eager to bring it up.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican who’s not up for reelection but may make a 2016 presidential run, was a rare voice of outrage at the high court’s move, reports The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog. “Virtually no other Congressional Republicans had anything to say about this big development, which is either a measure of GOP surrender on the issue, or a reminder that Republicans are basically sitting out this major cultural transformation, or both,” the blog notes.

House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, is going to California this week to raise money for gay House candidate Carl DeMaio, a fellow Republican who was lambasted recently by religious right groups, along with fellow gay House nominee Richard Tisei of Massachusetts and straight ally Monica Wehby, seeking a Senate seat from Oregon.

Republican officials in the states affected by Monday’s court decision appeared to be acquiescing to it. Scott Walker, the conservative Republican governor of Wisconsin, said, “For us, it’s over,” the Associated Press reports. The appellate court decision favoring marriage equality in Wisconsin, which the Supreme Court let stand, “is the law of the land and we will be upholding it,” said Walker, who faces Democratic challenger Mary Burke in November. Walker has a very slight lead in the polls over Burke, who said Walker’s earlier defense of the marriage ban placed him “on the wrong side of history,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes.

Utah attorney general Sean Reyes, who just last week was defending his defense of his state’s ban on same-sex marriage, expressed similar acceptance of today’s action, which makes deeply conservative Utah a marriage equality state. “We are a state and a people who believe in upholding the law of the land, and that has been determined for us today in a way that may not be satisfactory for some, but it is the law of the land,” Reyes said at a news conference Monday, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. “We are all Utahns. I hope we will exercise a great deal of kindness, caring, and understanding.” Reyes is running for reelection against Democratic challenger Charles Stormont.

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